New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - As election results trickled out Friday, Pakistan's hard line religious parties were registering surprise gains in two provinces bordering Afghanistan and emerging as a major power broker.
Contrary to all pre-poll projections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six fundamentalist, pro-Taliban and anti-American religious parties was all set to form the government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which borders Afghanistan.
"They chose the MMA for their future leadership. They have penned their votes on this MMA because they want it to bring real change and this system of exploitation will come to an end," said Quazi Hussan, leader of Amir Jamait Islami.
The elections are Pakistan's first since a 1999 army coup installed Pervez Musharraf as president. They were held for parliament and four provincial assemblies -- Punjab, Sindh, North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan -- on Thursday.
MMA's victories in NWFP and Baluchistan could have significant bearing in the on-going U.S.-led operation against Taliban and al Qaeda militants who are reported to have been hiding in tribal areas of the two provinces.
The military regime suffered a major setback when its leader Mia Muhammad Azhar, who was projected as the next prime minister, lost in Lahore.
The U.S. was closely monitoring elections in Pakistan, which were an important "milestone" in the country's transition to democracy.
"We welcome the holding of multi-party national and provincial elections in Pakistan. This is an important milestone in Pakistan's ongoing transition to democracy," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
"We are going to continue to watch the process very closely," he said.
Welcoming Musharraf's assurance "to the people of Pakistan to hand over executive power to the new prime minister by early next month," Fleischer said the U.S. was committed "to remaining engaged with Pakistan throughout this transition to
"In New York, when President Bush met with Musharraf, he stressed the importance of adhering to democracy in Pakistan. It is important and the United States takes it seriously and will monitor it closely," Fleischer said.
Former Pakistan Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have questioned the Election Commission's delay in announcing the results of the general elections.
Both Bhutto and Sharif, who live in exile, expressed their concern about the delay. In a telephone interview from London, Bhutto said the results should have been available two hours after the polls closed.
"It was a tragedy that elections in our country had not been fair, free and transparent," she said.
In a similar interview, Sharif, who lives in Jeddah, said if the results did not follow the early trends then they would have no credibility.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf indicated the new civilian administration would be installed in the first week of November.
"The power will be transferred to any party which will emerge victorious in elections," Musharraf told reporters after casting his vote along with his wife Sheba at a polling booth in Rawalpindi on Thursday.
The process would take place in the first week of November and "power transferring will be in a normal way," he said.
An Indian analyst feels that rising support for anti-American hard liners will create problems for Musharraf in the near future.
"This rising support for the extreme right's agenda could have more than just internal repercussions. It will affect the general's campaign against terrorism," New Delhi based defense analyst M.K Laul said Friday.
"This was the first major electoral gain for Islamic religious parties in the history of Pakistan. If the MMA begins to hold the balance of power in Islamabad, then an Indo-Pak dialogue would appear to be even more difficult, since the alliance is unremittingly jihadist in its outlook," Laul added.
According to the Friday edition of the Times of India, "The poll trends in Pakistan signal a mandate against President Pervez Musharraf. Despite the limited nature of the electorate, rigging and turnout, it has been a vote against the general."