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PAKISTAN ELECTION FAIR, MONITORS SAY

Opposition parties manage to win despite fears of election rigging.

Pakistan's opposition parties claimed the elections would be massively rigged - then they won. International monitors said Wednesday that the runup to the vote was biased toward President Pervez Musharraf's allies but that polling day was basically fair, enabling his critics to sweep to victory.

"A level playing field was not provided for the campaign," said Michael Gahler, chief of the EU monitoring mission, noting that slanted state media coverage, restrictions on rallies and the arrest of hundreds of political activists were among conditions benefiting the ruling party.

"But on election day," he added, "voting on the whole was assessed as positive."

With the count from Monday's parliamentary election nearly complete, the opposition parties of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-premier Nawaz Sharif had won enough seats to form a new government, though they were expected to fall short of the two-thirds needed to impeach Musharraf.

Wednesday, Bhutto and Sharif's parties had garnered 154 of the 268 contested seats - with six results to be announced, said Pakistan's Election Commission.

The result is seen as a major setback for the retired army general, who seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to become a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. But even President Bush said the balloting, considered a key step in the Muslim nation's transition to democracy, appeared to be fair.

"The question then is, 'Will they be friends of the United States?' I certainly hope so," Bush said.

Pakistan appeared headed toward its first elected civilian government after eight years of military rule. While top Musharraf supporters were repudiated, the winning opposition parties are politically moderate.

The vote was also a rebuke to Islamist parties, which lost control of a province where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have sought refuge.

Voters in turbulent and deeply conservative North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, gave their support to secular parties that promised to pave the streets, create jobs and bring peace through dialogue and economic incentives to the extremists.

"They didn't do anything for the people," Bokhari Shah, 65, said of the religious parties. "They have done nothing to help the people, and we are afraid to even come out from our homes because of all these bomb blasts."

The election outcome was seen as a clear sign that Pakistanis are rejecting religious extremism in a region where al-Qaida and the Taliban have sought refuge.

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan has been in touch with representatives from the two main opposition parties that will form the new government.

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