(The Washington Post) - The head of Pakistan's new leading party said Wednesday it will push to reinstate the country's embattled judiciary and lift restrictions placed on the media under the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf.
Asif Ali Zardari, co-chair of the Pakistan People's Party and widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said he will work with other parties in parliament for the reinstatement of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and called for the release of several judges and lawyers currently under detention.
"We want the judiciary to be an independent institution in the country," Zardari, whose party captured more votes than any other in Monday's vote, said during a news conference at his home Wednesday.
Restoration of the judiciary has been a flashpoint issue for politicians here ever since last year, when Musharraf sacked chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and detained several lawyers, including the president of the Supreme Court bar association, Aitzaz Ahsan, both critics of the president. Several parties have championed the cause of the reinstatement of the judiciary, but none more stridently than the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Zardari on Thursday plans to meet with Sharif to discuss the possible formation of a coalition. While Sharif was not a candidate for office, his Pakistan Muslim League-N took second place in the elections. Zardari said he has all but ruled out working with Musharraf's party.
Musharraf, in an interview Tuesday with the Wall Street Journal, vowed to stay in office despite his growing unpopularity and the poor electoral performance of his Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
The scramble to build alliances in parliament began in earnest late Monday evening when it became clear that voters had handed a victory to the two leading opposition parties. Zardari appeared to be working vigorously Wednesday to consolidate his party's power, holding meetings with leaders of several smaller opposition parties, including the secular Awami National Party.
The outcome of the political horse-trading will not only determine parliament's next choice for prime minister, but it will also have significant ramifications for the U.S.-backed counterterrorism efforts here.
The United States has spent more than $10 billion in aid to Pakistan to bolster the fight against militants in the country's restive tribal areas and northwest frontier. About $5 billion of that was in the form of reimbursements for some 91 Pakistani military operations against militants.
But newly empowered parties in parliament could diverge from Musharraf's strategy. Zardari said Wednesday his party wants to redefine Pakistan's struggle with Muslim extremists and smooth the way toward greater political inclusion for the millions that live in Pakistan's restive tribal regions.
"If we want to resolve the issue of extremism in Pakistan than we have to address the causes of extremism in the country," he said.
President Bush, traveling in Ghana, called the elections in Pakistan a "victory" in the war on terror.
"It's now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government," Bush said. "The question then is `Will they be friends of the United States?' I certainly hope so."