ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Leaders of Pakistan’s main opposition party were behind closed doors mulling candidates for prime minister Friday following a sweeping election win that threatens U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.
Though it could take days to reach a decision, the top contenders were the Pakistan People’s Party’s vice president, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, its chief representative in Punjab, the most populous province, said Nabeel Gabol, a senior PPP member.
The talks, which were wide-ranging, came one day after the party of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto announced plans to form a coalition with the runner-up in Monday’s parliamentary polls, ex-premier Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N.
The broad agreement between the two secular groups, which fought bitterly for a decade before Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, marked an important step toward setting up a civilian administration to govern the Islamic nation after years of military rule.
“The future of democracy is within our grasp,” Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari said at a joint press conference with Sharif. “We will strengthen the parliament, we will strengthen democracy, we will work together for Pakistan. We will make a stronger Pakistan.”
Sharif’s party said Friday the decision about the prime minister would be left to the election winner. “We think they will choose their best person for the job,” said PML-N spokesman Sadiq ul-Farooq said.
The two opposition parties together won 155 of the 268 parliamentary seats contested in Monday’s vote, short of the two-thirds majority needed to impeach Musharraf. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q won 40, with the rest going to smaller parties and independent candidates. The results exposed Musharraf’s own lack of public support amid rising Islamic militancy and anger over his recent crackdown on the independent judiciary. It also raised questions about his survival as head of state. He recently resigned from the army, considerably diminishing his power.
The United States, which made Musharraf a key ally in its war on terror after Sept. 11, 2001, said its relationship with the Muslim nation of 160 million would continue as before. “We look forward to working with whoever emerges as prime minister, we look forward to working with President Musharraf in his new role,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.
Asked whether the United States would ask Musharraf to resign if the opposition demanded that, Boucher said, “Let us not speculate at this point.”
Musharraf, meanwhile, has made it clear he intends to serve out his five-year term. He wrote in a commentary that appeared in The Washington Post that his country still faces tremendous challenges, from fighting Islamic extremism to building a stable democratic government.
“Because these goals are shared by the vast majority of Pakistanis, I am certain we can and will accomplish them,” he wrote. “And I stand ready to work with the newly elected parliament to achieve these objectives.” While Bhutto and Sharif’s parties rode a wave of anti-Musharraf sentiment, they still have to hammer out the details of how they will share power and resolve divergence in policy.
Sharif has been far sterner in demanding Musharraf’s ouster and in seeking the immediate restoration of the chief justice sacked by the president when he declared emergency rule late last year, just as the Supreme Court was to rule on the legality of Musharraf’s October re-election as president.
Dozens of other independent-minded judges also were sacked.
In what appeared to be a face-saving formula, Sharif told reporters that he and Zardari had agreed in principle on restoration of the judges but would leave it to parliament to sort out the details.
The ruling party said Friday it doubted the new alliance between former foes would be stable. “I don’t think the parties of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto have reached any final agreement about forming a government,” Tariq Azim, a ruling party leader, said Friday. “And if they do, it would be a marriage of convenience.”