Pakistani opposition parties agree on coalition government

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's leading opposition parties, victors in elections last month, agreed yesterday to form a government and directly challenged the country's U.S.-backed president, Pervez Musharraf, by pledging to restore the senior judiciary that he had sacked.

In a breakthrough, the Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, husband of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, agreed to share power in a coalition. No single party emerged with a majority in parliamentary elections Feb. 18. Three tense weeks followed, in which it looked as if Zardari and Sharif might not be able to work together.

"Musharraf and his cronies have been saying it's a hung parliament. Even if it is, it's against dictatorship," Sharif said, at a news conference in a hill resort near Islamabad. "This is the people's verdict against him. ... He should accept the facts."

Previously, the People's Party had been reluctant to reinstate the judges, preferring a less confrontational policy toward the president. The interventionist judges became the major obstacle to Musharraf's rule before he removed them Nov. 3, when he declared a six-week state of emergency. Analysts had said that the president's chances of survival rested on keeping the two main parties divided.

The Bush administration, which has strongly backed Musharraf since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not immediately react to the political developments.

A spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, said the State Department had no immediate comment.

Even after Musharraf's party was soundly defeated in last month's parliamentary elections, the White House pressed for a continued role for the former Army chief of staff. In part, that was because the U.S. government hoped to avoid a debilitating political battle between Musharraf and the newly elected leaders.

The Bush administration also has declined to back reinstating the judges, a position criticized by some democracy advocates.

Pakistanis see yesterday's agreement as a powerful statement about Musharraf's future.

"If something is done about the judges, Musharraf's position becomes untenable. It means a repudiation of everything he did on 3rd November," said Ayaz Amir, a member of parliament for Sharif's party and a leading newspaper columnist.

The judiciary, led by deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, could reopen the case into the legitimacy of Musharraf's position as president. The jurists could hear treason charges against Musharraf, which carry the death penalty, over the state of emergency he imposed. The country's powerful lawyers, who led the movement against the president, seemed set to use the reinstatement of the judges to go after Musharraf through the courts.

Yesterday, the anniversary of Chaudhry's first suspension, lawyers began a week of fresh protests and said they would keep up the pressure until the judges are back in their posts.

About 600 demonstrators marched on the residence in Islamabad where Chaudhry has been under house arrest for four months, chanting "Go, Musharraf, go" and "We want freedom."

Police in riot gear fired tear gas after some protesters tried to cut through barbed wire at concrete barricades that block the entrance to the house.

In the southern city of Karachi, several thousand people, including labor union members and journalists, gathered peacefully to demand that Musharraf step down.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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