- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of the two big opponents of President Pervez Musharraf, was set to capture the largest number of seats in the National Assembly today, putting it in a position to form a strong coalition government with the second largest, the Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif.

A day after the polling ended, the PPP surged ahead by midmorning, capturing 87 seats of the 272 up for grabs in the lower house of parliament, putting it ahead of the PML-N, which took 66. Unofficial results from some 10 districts were still to come in after dusk had already descended.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which supported Mr. Musharraf for the past five years, ended in a poor third position with 38 seats, and conceded defeat.

Official results are expected to be announced within the next two days.

The unofficial results put PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Mrs. Bhutto, in a position to form a coalition government with Mr. Sharif of the PML-N, also a former prime minister. Together the two leaders now control at least 153 seats in the lower house, well above the 137 needed for a simple majority, but short of the two-thirds majority they would need to amend the constitution.

Mr. Zardari met with his top party leaders in Islamabad, and later told reporters he would hold discussions with Mr. Sharif and Asfandyar Wali Khan, who heads the Awami National Party (ANP), which won 10 seats, mainly in the violence-torn North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan close to the Afghan border.

Mr. Sharif, meanwhile, told reporters his party was sticking by its agenda to restore democracy and the rule of law to Pakistan.

“We hope that democracy, the rule of law, the supremacy of the constitution and the independence of the judiciary will prevail,” he said.

Speaking in Urdu interspersed with English, he said, “We invite the democratic forces to come sit together with us” and work for a better future for Pakistan.

Mr. Zardari said he would talk to leaders of other parties and attempt to form a “government of consensus,” but one of the conditions he set for other parties joining the PPP-led coalition would be they should be ready to support his call for a probe into the Dec. 27 assassination of Mrs. Bhutto.

He is expected to meet with Mr. Sharif on Thursday, by which time the final official results of yesterday’s election are expected to be announced. Mr. Zardari already appears to support Mr. Sharif’s call for the release of 60-odd superior court judges who have been under house arrest since Nov. 3, when Mr. Musharraf declared a state of emergency.

For his part, pro-Musharraf PML-Q leader Pervez Elahi told reporters he was ready to work in the opposition.

Mr. Musharraf took credit for “conducting free and fair elections,” but was likely to be weakened if the winning parties pressed ahead with attempts to amend the constitution or impeach him.

As it stands, the constitution gives Mr. Musharraf power to dismiss parliament at will, and in order to change the country’s basic law, Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif would need to garner at least 182 seats in the National Assembly.

The two parties would need to woo smaller parties and independents to secure the 30 additional votes to win absolute majority. These parties include the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which as of now holds 19 seats, mainly from Karachi and southern Sindh, and the ANP. So far, independents have captured a total of 26 seats, and five small parties hold nine seats.

The MQM, which worked with the pro-Musharraf PML-Q over the past five years, was one of the first to offer its support to the new winners.

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