ISLAMABAD Pakistan's opposition election winners were trying to forge a coalition on Friday, raising the prospect of a government intent on forcing U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf from power.
Leaders of the two parties that won the election, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N, vowed on Thursday to work together to form a government but said they still had details to work out.
The main party backing the unpopular Musharraf was dealt a stunning defeat in Monday's general election, leaving the president, one of Washington's top Muslim allies against al Qaeda, vulnerable to a hostile parliament.
"I don't see any problems in them forming a coalition," said political analyst and academic Rasul Baksh Rais.
"They have realized that by working together they can put Pakistan back on a democratic line."
Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999 and whose PML-N came second in the vote, has demanded the unpopular president step down. But since the election, Musharraf has said he was not ready to resign.
U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has urged the next government to work with Musharraf and says Washington needs Pakistan -- which borders Afghanistan where U.S. and NATO forces are fighting Islamist militants -- as an ally.
Sharif met Asif Ali Zardari, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's widower and leader of her PPP since her murder on December 27, in Islamabad on Thursday evening for their first face-to-face talks since the election.
If they forge a coalition, it will be the first time in Pakistan's history the two main parties have come together. Musharraf's 1999 coup ended a chaotic decade of civilian rule alternating between Bhutto and Sharif governments.
Zardari met the PPP's winning candidates, and a party statement said more consultative meetings were expected over the next three days.
Zardari and Sharif also separately met with leaders of the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party set to join them in a coalition after sweeping Islamists out of power in North West Frontier Province.
The Election Commission is expected to issue official results on March 1.
Musharraf should then convene an inaugural session of the National Assembly. But how soon after may depend on whether there is a government-in-waiting, as the president has to invite a member commanding the confidence of the majority to become prime minister.
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Sharif told a news conference after his meeting with Zardari that the two parties would work together to form a government.
Zardari, whose party won the most seats but not an overall majority, said he wanted a broad government but one excluding the main party that backs Musharraf.
He said the PPP and Sharif's party would "stay together" but they had lots of details to work out.
"We have a lot of modalities to cover. We have a lot of ground to cover," he said. "We will be meeting off and on. In principle, we have agreed to stay together."
Sharif's party had yet to decide whether to join a PPP-led government or support it without being part of it.
"Either is possible. It is being worked out," said party chairman Raja Zafar-ul-Haq.
In another sign of looming trouble for Musharraf, Sharif said he and Zardari had agreed in principle to restore judges Musharraf fired when he imposed emergency rule in November.
The judges, if reinstated, can be expected to take up the question of the eligibility of Musharraf to stand for re-election as president while still army chief last October. They were expected to rule against Musharraf when he imposed the emergency.
The Karachi Stock Exchange 100 share index closed virtually flat, but a tiny 0.06 percent rise was enough to notch a record closing high for a third consecutive day.
The index has risen 4.37 percent this week largely due to relief the elections were less violent and fairer than most people anticipated. Dealers said sentiment was still positive and investors were looking forward to a new coalition.
Karachi is the only share market in Asia to have gained this year, up 6.3 percent. Its gains over the past 12 months are ranked behind only China and Indonesia, though many investors still consider it a difficult and illiquid market.
The index has risen about 900 percent since 2000.