ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's opposition, victors in the elections last month, agreed to form a government Sunday and directly challenged the country's US-backed president, Pervez Musharraf, by pledging to restore the senior judiciary that he had sacked.
In a break-through, the Pakistan People's Party, led by Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari, 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 the parliamentary election on Feb. 18. Three tense weeks followed, in which it looked as if Zardari and Sharif may 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 press 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 confrontation policy towards the president. The interventionist judges became the major obstacle to Musharraf's rule before he removed them on 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 September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did not immediately react to the political developments.
State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said the department had no immediate comment.
Even after Musharraf's party was roundly 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.
"We have ... been silent on the subject," Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Senate hearing in late February.
Pakistanis see Sunday'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 re-open the case into the legitimacy of Musharraf's position as president. Worse, they 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.
"Unless someone is held accountable, you're not deterring future adventurers. Those who have been guilty must be brought to book," said Tariq Hassan, one of the leading anti-Musharraf lawyers.
Sharif's party and the People's Party had been bitter enemies, having spent the 1990s scheming to topple each other's governments. However, they were brought together in recent months through their shared hostility towards Musharraf and their common agenda of returning Pakistan to elected government.
"We are bound together in the spirit of democracy. Pakistanis have spoken and they have spoken for democracy," Zardari said.
The willingness of the two big parties to work together, and the statesman-like position taken by them, has surprised many in Pakistan, who remember the parties for the corruption and mismanagement that marked their governments in the 1990s.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said: "They (the parties) have shown a lot of maturity. They realized what is at stake and the challenges the country faces. It is really heart-warming."
The new government will move in parliament to strip the presidency of its powers, especially the authority to dismiss the government. Under Pakistan's original constitution, it is the prime minister, not the president, who is supposed to run the country.
Now that the anti-Musharraf forces have combined, there is also the threat of impeachment hanging over the president.
Beyond politics, the major challenges for the new government will be the economy, which has deteriorated sharply over the last year, and tackling Islamic extremism.
Washington anxiously will have to wait to see what the new government's policy on the "war on terror" will be. Neither party has clear made its position clear, although Sharif adopted a strong line in anti-American tone during the election campaign.
The prime minister will come from the People's Party, although no candidate has been named for the top slot yet. Zardari did not stand for parliament, so he not a contender.