ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Two weeks after Pakistan's opposition parties triumphed in national elections, they're still unable to agree on a prime minister or a government, and the stalemate threatens to strengthen the man they defeated, President Pervez Musharraf.
Western diplomats in Islamabad privately expressed alarm over the political vacuum, which comes as Islamic extremists are conducting a campaign of suicide bombings. An attack on a naval college Tuesday in the eastern city of Lahore claimed at least four lives, and coincided with the end of the second visit to Pakistan within a month of U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some Pakistani politicians charge that interference by the United States and its ally, Musharraf, has stalled the formation of a new government. But the two winning parties bear their share of responsibility.
The Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Zardari since the assassination Dec. 27 of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, won about a third of the seats but has been unable to name a prime minister amid an internal battle for the job. Party stalwart Amin Fahim, whom Bhutto trusted, had been considered a certainty for the post, but Zardari has been pushing his own allies, particularly Ahmed Mukhtar, an industrialist who spent time in jail with him.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, pledged during and after the campaign to work with Zardari's party "in the national interest" amid handshakes and smiles for the cameras. But Sharif has been unable to come to terms with Zardari.
Two major issues divide them: whether to permit Musharraf to continue as president and whether to reinstate judges he fired in November. Sharif has said that he'll accept nothing less than reinstatement of all the judges. Zardari has been more cautious, with leaders of his party publicly saying that they can work with Musharraf and suggesting that parliament should decide the judges issue later.
Najam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper, said there were two roadblocks: "the inability of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to come to terms, and the reluctance of Asif Zardari to talk to Musharraf's party."
"Musharraf has already messed up everything. He's trying to mess it up further now," said Ayaz Sadiq, a newly re-elected member of parliament for Nawaz's party from Lahore. "He is trying to get people to stay away from us. . . . He can do it mostly because of support from the USA."
It's up to the president to call the first session of parliament after an election, but Musharraf has been silent.
Ikram Sehgal, a political analyst based in the southern city of Karachi, said: "The more Musharraf delays, they more they (the parties) will fall apart."
A breakthrough in the coalition talks is still possible, but analysts think that the delay has exposed the deep fissures between the two big parties, which will resurface even if they're able to agree to sit together in the government or support each other in parliament.
Some Western diplomats said that Pakistan's politicians and news media had exaggerated the U.S. role in forming a new government and its backing for Musharraf.
Said one Western diplomat, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject: "The goal of the West is a transition to a civilian government. It would be best if Musharraf goes off quietly into the night."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)