Musharraf Calls for Reconciliation

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Fears of violence kept many Pakistanis away from voting Monday, in elections that could usher in a parliament set on driving President Pervez Musharraf from office, while Musharraf himself called for reconciliation after casting his vote.

The legislative elections were originally scheduled for Jan. 8, but the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto after a rally in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27 forced a delay.

Election results were expected to start emerging by midnight and trends should be clear Tuesday morning.

The death of Bhutto, the most progressive, Western-friendly politician in a Muslim nation rife with anti-American sentiment, raised concern about stability in the nuclear-armed state.

Well over 450 people have died in militant-related violence this year.

Fear of violence kept many Pakistanis away from the polls. Witnesses in cities across the country reported a trickle of voters, despite 80,000 troops backing up police.

The election commission said turnout was about 15 percent three hours after polls opened. Monday was a holiday, with banks and schools closed.

Musharraf voted at a polling station set up in a school in the city of Rawalpindi.

"We must come out of this confrontationalist approach and get into a conciliatory mode. I myself will remain committed to a politics of reconciliation with everyone," Musharraf later told reporters.

"Whichever political party wins, whoever becomes prime minister ... I congratulate them and I will fully cooperate with them as president," he said.

Musharraf's popularity has plunged over the past year because of his maneuvers to hold on to power, which included purging the judiciary and six weeks of emergency rule.

Many Pakistanis also blame the government for rising prices, food shortages and all-too-frequent power cuts.

Azra Khalid Shaikh, a voter heading into a polling station in the city of Karachi, said she wanted to set the country back on a path to democracy. "This is the starting point," she said.

Security concerns affect large parts of Pakistan. A suicide attack on supporters of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party killed 47 people in a northwestern town on Saturday.

"You see suicide bombings everywhere and you can see the empty streets on polling day. It's all because of fear," said Mohammad Ijaz, a civil servant voting in the city of Lahore where three people were killed in shootings late Sunday.

An intelligence official said 11 people had been killed, seven in Punjab province, and 70 wounded in violence since voting began.

A sympathy vote is expected to help the PPP become the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Most analysts doubt the PPP can win a majority. Whom it chooses for coalition partners will be vital to Musharraf.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP, issued a conciliatory call for unity on the eve of the vote. He did not speak to reporters as he voted in Sindh.

The leader of the other main opposition party, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, made a victory sign as he voted in Lahore.

An alliance between the PPP and Sharif is what Musharraf dreads as Sharif is intent on bringing him down, perhaps through impeachment.