ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's main opposition parties, victorious in Monday's elections, announced Thursday that they'll work together to form a coalition government and that they've agreed that dozens of judges purged by President Pervez Musharraf should be reinstated.
The announcement by the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N left Musharraf more isolated than ever after an election that was a massive repudiation of the former general's authoritarian policies and his close ties to the Bush administration.
"We have agreed on a common agenda. We will work together to form a government together in the center and in the provinces," PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif announced at a news conference with PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The PPP won the largest bloc of seats — but not a majority — in Monday's polling for the 342-member National Assembly. Sharif's party finished second, with other regional parties and the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslin League-Q faction winning the rest.
Zardari and Sharif's agreement to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and some 60 other independent-minded Supreme Court and Superior Court judges was a direct challenge to Musharraf, whom President Bush has called an "indispensable ally" in the war on al Qaida and other terrorist groups that have havens along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
Musharraf fired the judges in November and declared a six-week state of emergency to prevent them from overturning constitutional changes that he decreed. The amendments allowed him to extend his term while he was still army chief of staff and indemnified him against prosecution for his official acts.
"In principle there's no disagreement on restoration of the judiciary. We will work on the modalities in parliament," said Sharif, a former prime minister whom Musharraf ousted in a 1999 military coup.
Sharif's comments indicated that the two rival parties had struck a compromise.
For his part, Sharif appears to have given up his demand for the immediate reinstatement of the judges and his threats to begin impeachment proceedings against Musharraf for his legally dubious maneuvers.
In return, Zardari abandoned what had been an ambiguous stand on reinstating the judges, apparently taken in an apparent effort to avoid alienating the Bush administration, which has been pressing the opposition parties to drop their call for the judges' reinstatement.
"The PPP had been fudging the issue and hedging their bets," said Tariz Hassan, a leader of a lawyers' movement that's been boycotting the courts nationwide to demand Chaudhry's release from house arrest and his reinstatement.
The Bush administration considers Musharraf an ally in the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaida and the Taliban, whose leaders fled into Pakistan's western tribal region after the administration failed to prevent their escape from Afghanistan in 2001.
The tribal region is also home to Islamic insurgents, who've staged a series of suicide bombings around the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million.
Neither Sharif nor Zardari mentioned whether he'd agreed to push for Musharraf's resignation. That had been one of Sharif's persistent demands, which he repeated before several hundred protesters a few hours before his meeting with Zardari.
Athar Minallah, Chaudhry's lawyer, praised the party leaders for finding common ground.
"It's very good news that the political parties have agreed on the reinstatement of the judges," he said. "This is a big victory for the lawyers community."
Earlier, police and demonstrators pushed and shoved each other as the demonstrators attempted to march to Chaudhry's home, where he's under house arrest.
Many protesters directed their anger at the Bush administration for what they contended is an American effort to keep Musharraf in office despite the massive vote against his party.
"Our whole nation is aware that America is backing this man," said Syed Mazar Hassan Shah Shirazi, a lawyer. "Our actual enemy is America. So we should stand against America."
The demonstrators, most of whom were lawyers, shouted, "Go Musharraf, go" and "Musharraf is a dog" as they confronted police at a barricade of barbed wire and concrete barriers. The lawyers dragged away the rolls of wire. Pushing and shoving began, and the pop of a solitary tear-gas grenade appeared to signal an end to the officers' patience and an imminent baton-charge.
At that moment, Sharif's motorcade drove up to deliver him to the government guesthouse where he was staying. No further tear gas canisters were fired, and the cheering protesters gathered around as Sharif, with a veteran politician's sense of timing, emerged from his vehicle to address the crowd briefly over a megaphone.
He reiterated his call for Musharraf to acknowledge the election results by resigning, and he said, "The time has come when we will escort the judges ourselves and sit them down in the court."