- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s two main opposition parties announced yesterday they would form a new government together, but skirted the issue of whether they would push for the ouster of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.

The agreement between the secular groups, which competed for over power for a decade before Mr. Musharraf seized control in a 1999 coup, marks an important step toward setting up a civilian administration to govern Pakistan after years of military rule.

Asif Ali Zardari, husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, whose last government was ousted by Mr. Musharraf, made the announcement after meeting in Islamabad.

“We have agreed on a common agenda. We will work together to form a government together in the center and in the provinces,” Mr. Sharif told reporters. He said a smaller group, the Awami National Party, would join them.

“The future of democracy is within our grasp. We will strengthen the parliament, we will strengthen democracy, we will work together for Pakistan. We will make a stronger Pakistan,” Mr. Zardari said.

Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party won 87 National Assembly seats in Monday’s election, and Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N won 67 out of the 268 contested seats. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q got 40, with the rest going to smaller parties and independent candidates. Six seats have yet to be announced.

The new government is expected to be installed by mid-March.

The election exposed Mr. Musharraf’s lack of public support amid rising Islamic militancy and anger over his crackdown on the judiciary. It also raised questions about his survival as head of state. He recently resigned his post of military commander, considerably diminishing his power.

While both parties rode a wave of anti-Musharraf sentiment, they still have to hammer out the details of how they will share power and resolve their differing policies.

Mr. Sharif has been far sterner in demanding Mr. Musharraf’s ouster and in seeking the reinstatement of the chief justice, one of dozens of independent-minded judges sacked by the president in November just as the Supreme Court was to rule on the legality of his re-election by parliament.

Yesterday, Mr. Sharif made an impassioned address to protesters at the Islamabad home of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, demanding his release and restoration to the court, which is now stacked with Musharraf appointees.

Mr. Musharraf, a key ally of Washington in its war on terrorist groups, has said he has no intention of resigning and will serve out his five-year term.

However, many Pakistanis see Mr. Musharraf as a divisive figure whose continued presence could lead to political confrontation and destabilize the new government.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was up to the Pakistanis “to decide whether Musharraf retains his position.” But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials also are telling opposition forces that moderates should work together to fight extremists and move toward democracy.

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