Madeleine Brand and Non-Proliferation Expert Jon Wolfsthal
Husain Haqqani, leader of Boston University's Center for International Relations
Pakistan's opposition parties said Tuesday they would try to form a coalition government after voters dealt President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party a resounding defeat at the polls.
The Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto emerged from Monday's election as the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly, although it failed to win an outright majority.
The results cast doubt on the political future of Musharraf, a former general who seized power in a 1999 coup. He was re-elected to a five-year term last October, in a parliamentary ballot that sparked widespread protest.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and head of the PPP, said the party had the right to form a coalition government, adding there would be no place in it for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML).
"As the largest political force of the country, we demand that we be allowed to make the government," he told a news conference in Islamabad.
Zardari, who took over the leadership of the PPP after Bhutto's death, said he would try to persuade Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew, to join a coalition.
Speaking at a news conference in Lahore, Sharif urged Musharraf to accept his defeat.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington will continue to work with Musharraf and whatever government emerges to support the U.S. fight against violent Islamic extremism.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was speaking in Pakistan, said the results should encourage the U.S. to shift its policy away from supporting one person, Musharraf, to a broader-based approach.
The private Geo TV network said the PPP and another group led by Sharif had so far won 153 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.
Musharraf's party was a distant third with 38 seats. A raft of party stalwarts and former Cabinet ministers lost in their constituencies.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, told AP Television News that "we accept the results with an open heart" and "will sit on opposition benches" in the new parliament.
While Musharraf has promised to work with any new government, he is hugely unpopular and his rivals are unlikely to be in any hurry to work with him. At best, he faces the prospect of remaining president with sharply diminished powers and facing a public hostile to him.