Newly Empowered Pakistani Parliament Opens

As Pakistan's new parliament held its first session Monday, many saw the ceremony as highly symbolic. For now, power seems to be shifting from embattled President Pervez Musharraf to opposition lawmakers.

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Pakistan's new national assembly was sworn in today. It convened one month after elections dealt a heavy defeat to the allies of President Pervez Musharraf.

NPR's Philip Reeves was at the parliament in Islamabad and has this report.

PHILIP REEVES: There were days in Pakistan when you have to pinch yourself to make sure that what you're seeing is not a strange dream. Today was one of those days. The spotlight fell on two men - the first was Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party holds the most seats in the National Assembly sworn in today. Not so long ago, Zardari was doing a long stretch in prison facing corruption allegations now withdrawn. The second man in the spotlight was Nawaz Sharif. His party was runner-up in last month's elections. It's entering a coalition government with Zardari's party. Not so long ago, Sharif was in exile after being thrown out as prime minister in a coup by Pervez Musharraf in 1999. When Sharif tried to return home last year, he was humiliatingly turned around at the airport. The wheel of fortune has turned - Sharif and Zardari are back at the pinnacle of power. They don't hold seats themselves but both men watched exaltedly today as their foot soldiers took the oath.

Unidentified Man: (Speaks foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaks foreign language)

REEVES: It was a prayer to Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated on the campaign trail.

Unidentified Man: (Speaks foreign language)

REEVES: The politicians who now formed Pakistan's new government saw today's ceremony as highly symbolic of palpable moment when power shifted from the president towards parliament.

(Soundbite of protests)

REEVES: They arrived in euphoric mood which even being shoved around by a scrum of cameramen and reporters couldn't spoil. Asif Khawaja is from Nawaz Sharif's party.

Mr. ASIF KHAWAJA (Pakistani Politician): It's a very historical day. People expect a lot from us and we'll try to come up to the expectations of people of Pakistan.

REEVES: That won't be easy. For now, Zardari's and Sharif's parties are united though they have a history of hostility, but they don't share exactly the same agenda. Khawaja says his party is determined to kick out Musharraf.

Mr. KHAWAJA: Musharraf has to go. Musharraf has no future, you know, in this country at least, you know. Maybe he has some future in U.S. but not in Pakistan, you know.

REEVES: Ask people in Zardari's party like Hina Rabbani Khar about whether Musharraf should go and the reply is noticeably more vague.

Ms. HINA RABBANI KHAR (Member of Parliament, Pakistan): You see, it's not going after one person or the other, it's going towards the mature democratic system, moving towards institution building more than anything else.

REEVES: You could say that that's a very ambivalent and ambiguous reply.

Ms. KHAR: It is an ambivalent and ambiguous reply and I think I'm doing it on purpose. The parliament together and all the forces in parliament have to really decide as to what course of action are to be. But clearly I will not support anything which leads this country into further chaos.

REEVES: Pakistanis are now waiting to see who will be their new prime minister. As for the isolated and unpopular Musharraf, he's waiting too for the wheel of fortune to turn back in his direction.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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