Victorious Pakistan opposition parties ponder coalition government

( dpa ) - The party of assassinated Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was considering various options Wednesday to form a coalition government following its win in crucial parliamentary elections.

"We are in contact with other like-minded political parties to discuss the formation of a government of national consensus," said Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

In a development that undoubtedly shocked embattled President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the PPP and other opposition parties cruised to victory in Monday's polls, leaving Musharraf's political survival very much in doubt.

Unofficial results from 258 of 272 contested National Assembly seats showed Bhutto's party won 87 seats, followed by fellow opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with 66 seats.

Leaders from both parties immediately demanded Musharraf resign and have indicated that they might join hands to form a future government despite being fierce rivals in the past.

Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, who took over as PPP chairman after her slaying in a gun and suicide bomb attack on December 27, was expected to meet Sharif on Thursday in Islamabad. In return for Sharif's support in forming a national government, the PPP could ensure he forms a government in Punjab province, the country's most important region, where PML-N emerged as the biggest winner.

The possibility of a PPP-PML-N government could be fatal for Musharraf, whose powers are already diminished since he was compelled to resign as army chief, leaving his presidency as little more than ceremonial. Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999 and the two men are bitter political enemies.

But Musharraf, a former army commando, has himself already begun political maneuvering to ensure his survival. His top aides met Zardari on Tuesday to persuade him to instead form a coalition government with Musharraf's political backer, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), and its ally the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The PML-Q suffered a humiliating loss in Monday's poll, which were seen as a referendum on Musharraf's rule, winning only 38 seats.

Zardari was non-committal to a coalition, according to DawnNews TV, citing a government official privy to the meeting.

Babar said he had no knowledge of the meeting, while presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi refused to confirm the report.

"I can neither confirm nor deny it," he said, adding that such a meeting was possible in the future.

Zardari told reporters after meeting with the PPP's central committee on Tuesday evening that he would not form a government with any party that was aligned with the Musharraf regime.

A potential coalition with Sharif is also problematic as both have conflicting views on certain issues, and the PML-N leader was bitter enemies with Bhutto during the 1990s.

Sharif is demanding that former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and around 60 other judges who were sacked on November 3,2007 when Musharraf imposed emergency rule, after which they could rule on the legality of the president's controversial re-election the previous month.

Such a move would bring the new government in direct confrontation with Musharraf at a time when Pakistan is suffering from rising food and fuel prices and growing Islamic militancy along its border with Pakistan.

On the other hand, analyst say, the PPP wants political stability first and can then move slowly to sideline Musharraf.

Sharif, an aggressive political player, is also maneuvering, inviting winning PML-Q winning candidates to join his PML-N, saying his was the parent party.

The PML-Q faction broke away from Sharif after the 1999 coup. Analysts have said the party was artificially constructed to provide a political face to Musharraf's military regime.

The United States on Tuesday welcomed the election results and urged the victorious parties to work closely to fight terrorism.

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