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Pakistan opposition agrees on coalition

Times Staff Writer

The two main opposition parties announced Thursday that they would work to form a coalition government, after dealing the party of President Pervez Musharraf a bruising defeat in this week’s elections.

But it was unclear whether the groups would jointly seek to oust Musharraf in the wake of Monday’s vote, which was widely viewed as a devastating verdict on his performance as Pakistan’s leader.

Neither the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto nor the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won enough votes to govern on its own. But together they have a comfortable parliamentary majority.

The parties appeared ready to paper over their differences, at least for the time being, in order to move swiftly to form a coalition.

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But more talks lie ahead before the coalition’s final composition is determined and a candidate for prime minister is put forward. Details of the tentative accord between the two sides also remained unclear.

“In principle we have agreed to stay together,” Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who leads her party, said at a news conference in Islamabad.

“We have to support each other,” echoed Sharif, seated beside him.

According to Sharif, the two sides agreed in principle that dozens of judges fired late last year by Musharraf should be reinstated. The Supreme Court was poised to rule on the validity of Musharraf’s election to a second presidential term when he declared a state of emergency in November and ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, among others.

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Zardari has said that the new parliament should decide whether to bring back the deposed jurists, a step that could cause complications for him as well as Musharraf. Zardari still faces corruption charges dating back to Bhutto’s two terms as prime minister, when he served in her Cabinet.

The two opposition leaders also left ambiguous whether they would push for the impeachment of Musharraf, whom the United States has considered a crucial ally despite his deep unpopularity at home.

Sharif, who was overthrown and jailed by Musharraf in 1999 before being sent into exile, declared anew that the former general must step down or be forced out.

Zardari, however, has not ruled out allowing Musharraf to serve out his five-year term as president. He appeared to indicate, however, that his party would not ally itself with the remnants of Musharraf’s.

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“We’re not looking at pro-Musharraf forces” to help form a government, he said. “I don’t believe pro-Musharraf forces exist.”

Many of the Pakistani leader’s closest political allies lost their parliamentary seats in the vote, held less than two months after Bhutto’s assassination.

Impeachment of the president would require a two-thirds vote of parliament; the two main opposition parties together will control just under 60% of the seats. But they could forge partnerships with smaller parties and independents that would give them sufficient numbers to move against Musharraf.

Emboldened by the opposition victory, Pakistani lawyers took to the streets of at least four major cities to renew calls for the reinstatement of the fired judges.

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In the biggest clashes since Monday’s nationwide vote, police fired tear gas at the lawyers, some of whom burned effigies of Musharraf.

Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest since November and largely incommunicado, addressed protesters via a smuggled cellphone that legal colleagues held up to a bullhorn.

“Victory is not far off now,” Chaudhry told the lawyers’ gathering in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

In Islamabad, the capital, protesters hurled stones and tried to tear down a barbed-wire barricade blocking the way to the chief justice’s home. Police fired tear-gas canisters, filling the air with choking clouds.

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Police also used tear gas to break up the Karachi protest. Demonstrations also were held in the eastern city of Lahore and in the southwestern provincial capital of Quetta.

Addressing the Lahore gathering as well by cellphone, Chaudhry called this a “defining moment” for Pakistan.

“If we lose this opportunity, no one can then change the affairs of this nation,” he called out.

While the overall magnitude of the electoral defeat suffered by the Pakistan Muslim League-Q allied with Musharraf was clear, the counting stalled short of a full and final tally.

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Pakistan’s Election Commission said races for six of the 272 contested parliamentary seats were still unresolved because of voting irregularities. Four other contests will have to be resolved through by-elections because of the deaths of candidates, including Bhutto. Another 70 seats are allotted among parties for women and minorities, based on vote share.

Zardari and Sharif’s parties between them so far have garnered 154 seats in parliament, far outpacing the main pro-Musharraf party.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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