Pakistani opposition in coalition talks

( AP ) - Leaders of Pakistan's two main opposition parties said Tuesday they would form a coalition government if - as expected - their groups win the biggest share of votes in next week's parliamentary elections.

The hour-long meeting of Benazir Bhutto's widowed husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came one day after a survey by a U.S. government-funded organization predicted the opposition would score a landslide victory in the Feb. 18 ballot.

Zardari told reporters his Pakistan People's Party would invite Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N as well as "other democratic forces" to join a governing coalition even if Bhutto's group won enough legislative seats to rule on its own.

"We will sit together because the country is passing through a dangerous phase, and we can only steer the country out of this crisis together," Zardari said. "I am conveying this message to the establishment that I will change this system."

Sharif, who hosted the meeting at his home, said the political, social and economic crisis facing Pakistan had reached the point that "we all have to join hands and save the country from any further deterioration."

Violence by Islamic extremists linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida has been rising, particularly in the northwestern regions along the border with Afghanistan, and politics has been snarled in bitter wrangling over the long military rule led by President Pervez Musharraf.

A survey released Monday by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute said half the Pakistanis polled planned to vote for Bhutto's party and 22 percent backed Sharif's PML-N party. The party supporting the president came in third, with 14 percent.The overwhelming majority of those polled would prefer a governing coalition of Bhutto's party and Sharif's bloc if no group wins a majority in parliament, the survey said.

The survey, which questioned 3,845 adults Jan. 19-29, put Musharraf's approval rating at an all-time low of 15 percent. The survey has a sampling error margin of plus or minus two percentage points.

Tariq Azeem, a spokesman for the pro-Musharraf party, disputed the survey's findings, but he also predicted his group would lose parliament seats.

Musharraf, the former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup against Sharif, was re-elected by the former parliament to another five-year term in October. But he needs a strong majority in the new assembly to block any move to impeach him.

Opposition against Musharraf began rising with his failed attempt last year to oust the Supreme Court's chief justice, and the anger intensified when he imposed temporary emergency rule in November and removed Supreme Court judges seen as a challenge to his continued rule.

The election is aimed ushering in a new democratic era after years of military rule under Musharraf, who gave up his dual post as military commander two months ago to govern as a civilian.

But the campaign is taking place against a backdrop of fear over militant violence and apathy over prospects for improvements in Pakistani life.

Security fears have prompted many candidates to curb campaigning since Bhutto was assassinated by a bombing and gun attack after a political rally Dec. 27.

Underscoring security fears, at least nine people were wounded Tuesday by a bomb blast near the office of a candidate in Khuzdar, a town in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. The candidate escaped injury.

Over the weekend, dozens of people were killed in a suicide bombing at a campaign rally, while an attack Monday wounded a candidate out campaigning.

The military announced that tens of thousands of soldiers had been placed on alert to bolster security during the election. Senior military officers insisted the soldiers would not interfere with the vote.

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Jawed Iqbal Cheema, said provincial officials had asked for the troops to help maintain order, but he promised none would be stationed at voting stations - a move that could serve to intimidate voters.

"We want to make sure people can cast their vote without any fear," he said. "Nobody will be allowed to disrupt the polling process ... Anyone who tries to do so will be dealt with sternly."

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