THE humiliating defeat of the so-called King’s Party at the ballot, and the better-than-expected performance by PML-N, are factors that are correctly being interpreted to a large extent as indicative of the anti-Musharraf mood, mainly in the Punjab. The overall tally, with the PPP-Parliamentarians emerging as the largest single group, also clearly suggests that the former military ruler-turned-civilian president may not have many backers in the new National Assembly.

Does this really mean that the Feb 18 election was, in fact, a referendum on Musharraf? Maybe it was. Does it also imply that he has been left with no option but to step down? Perhaps not — even certainly not — in the immediate future.

The reason is simple. In the absence of a clear majority for any single party, there remains room to manoeuvre for each of the key players in Islamabad’s treacherous game of government formation. So, it is not surprising that the number-crunchers in almost all the major political groups, diplomatic missions, journalists, the presidency and, of course, the intelligence services, have remained busy exploring the pros and cons of various permutations.

This statistical game may go on for a while, also because even after all the results are in, another exercise remains: the allocation to different parties of the 60 seats reserved for women and another 10 for religious minorities. According to the laid-down formula based on population, Punjab will have 35 women’s seats, Sindh will have 14, NWFP eight and Balochistan three. These will be distributed among the political groups on the basis of their acquired strength in the National Assembly from each of the provinces. The 10 minority seats will be distributed amongst the winning parties of the direct elections for 272 seats on the basis of their country-wide strength. This may result in a slight change in the overall equation, but not in a big way.

Considering all this, the simplistic view is that with the PPP-P in the lead position, the party is well placed to extend a hand of friendship to groups such as the PML-N, ANP and possibly the MQM; and with support of most of the 30-odd independents, can have a strong coalition government at the centre. Such a coalition, after having added the seats reserved for women and religious minorities, will have something like 230-plus seats in a house of 342.

This may automatically lead to the formation of pretty stable governments in the Punjab, Sindh and the NWFP, leaving it to the diversified groups in Balochistan to settle amongst themselves their own power-sharing formula.

In this sort of arrangement, it may also not be a tough task to make the coalition partners agree on the PPP’s choice of the prime minister. Although some say that Makhdoom Amin Fahim’s chances as a front-runner receded in recent weeks, and another aspirant Aftab Shaaban Mirani’s defeat may have upset the PPP bigwigs, someone like Asif Ali Zardari can always spring a surprise in the form of a nominee everyone can agree on. If this happens, it may also make the choice of the persons or parties to head the provincial governments relatively easy.

But things may not be as simple as they appear on paper. This is largely because of the divergent views of the two, if not three, major components of such a proposed coalition on a number of crucial issues. In fact, if Mian Nawaz Sharif’s remarks at his post-election news conference of Tuesday are any indication, his insistence on the restoration of judiciary to its pre-Nov 3 position as a primary condition for joining the government may become the single biggest obstacle to the formation of such a coalition.

In other words, it means a direct confrontation between the president and the new government. Being the president’s trusted ally, the MQM may not agree to such a formula and even the PPP leadership may be reluctant go for drastic changes such as the restoration of the deposed chief justice Chaudhry Iftikhar which, in the view of some PPP stalwarts, could create more uncertainty in the political system.

Mr Zardari has already gone on record as saying that rather than making it a precondition, the party would like the next parliament to resolve the matter.

The visiting group of US Senators such as Joseph Biden and John Kerry may have its own reasons to be optimistic about the smooth formation of a coalition, and its relations with President Musharraf. But there is definitely an impasse, if not a complete deadlock, which has in fact prompted all key politicians to look inwards and hold discussion amongst their respective central leaderships. The other players of Islamabads political game, who have an equally large interest in ensuring a favourable — if not entirely stable — set-up, have also remained in touch with almost all the major political players, presenting their own assessments, analyses and options.

But what if there is no agreement between Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif on some of the fundamental issues? Would the PPP then like to lead a government of most other groups, including the PML-Q? It is a possibility in theory but it may put Mr Zardari and almost all other members of his party in a highly awkward position, especially after having dubbed the PML-Q the ‘qaatil league’ and indirectly accusing it of Benazir Bhutto’s violent death.

It is precisely for this reason, say knowledgeable sources, that efforts are afoot to promote the concept of a ‘grand coalition’ or a ‘government of national consensus’. Such a move may come with a call to forgive and forget the past, thus creating room for all groups to join in.

At one stage this looked like a possibility, but the unexpected upset in the Punjab by the PML-N has certainly hardened Mr Sharif’s position, thus leaving a little room for compromise on issues such as having a working relationship with President Musharraf or the question of the restoration of the judiciary.

However, sources say that even if he backs out from a call for a ‘government of national-consensus’, the PPP or Mr Zardari may claim ‘moral high ground’ in agreeing to forgive and forget and form a grand coalition, with the PML-Q being one of the components. A strange combination indeed but something that cannot be entirely ruled out, say some analysts.

According to some observers, following Monday’s verdict the easiest solution to any post-election crisis could come in the form of President Musharraf’s honourable exit. They say that he could have simply bowed out by declaring that it was his way of respecting the people’s verdict.

But then this has never happened in Pakistan in the past and unless the crisis spirals completely out of control, it won’t even be considered as an option — as the president’s spokesman was quick to say.

The other option is of a coalition government of the PPP and the PML-N, along with some other groups. That also looks difficult at this stage. This is why all eyes are now focused on the manner in which a formula for a government of national consensus is presented and to what extent — and for how long — it will ensure political stability.

Small wonder, then, that despite such an amazing electoral outcome and the optimism of the first 24 hours, some seasoned politicians have already started to discuss the possibility of an early general election.

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