ISLAMABAD, Feb 20: The victors of Monday’s general election on Wednesday seemed set for crucial talks to sew up what could be a grand PPP-led governing coalition at the centre and pick the next prime minister.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif, whose parties led an opposition victory despite having to fight on a perceived uneven playing field provided by a hostile regime, are due to meet in Islamabad on Thursday to discuss the shape of the combine that could also include the NWFP-based Awami National Party (ANP).

The two main parties are also likely to try to reconcile their varying stances on some tough issues such as the political future of President Pervez Musharraf, who sidelined them during more than eight years of his rule, and the restoration of about 60 superior court judges sacked under the extra-constitutional but short-lived state of emergency he imposed on Nov 3.

The inter-party talks side by side with the meetings of their central executive committees will take place after their leaders have also met diplomats and visitors from some foreign countries interested in the future of democracy in Pakistan and the continuation of Islamabad’s key role in the so-called war against terrorism.

Covert contacts are also likely between the election winners and key aides of the president, who seems destined to face an increased pressure from opposition parties and an estranged and highly motivated legal community waning him to resign from the office he assumed for another term only two months ago after a controversial election from a dying parliamentary electoral college.

The PPP is supposed to lead the coalition as the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly and provide a prime minister, for which the main focus shifted to the party’s senior vice-chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim after Mr Zardari, who has not contested for a National Assembly seat, on Wednesday ruled himself out for the job, at least for now.

After being out of power for more than 11 years, the PPP has also won enough provincial assembly seats to form a government in Sindh province, and could be part of a PML-N-led ruling provincial coalition in the Punjab and an ANP-led coalition in the North-West Frontier Province.

The crushing election defeats in the rest of the country left the previously ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) — commonly known by its original name of PML-Q — as the largest single group in the Balochistan provincial assembly.

Although the PPP, PML-N and ANP seem sure to become the primary partners of a coalition, Mr Zardari on Wednesday indicated a strong possibility of associating the pro-Musharraf Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of what he visualises to be a “national consensus government”, because of the party’s key position in Karachi, the country’s commercial capital. But, while addressing a news conference in Islamabad, he appeared seeking to keep the Musharraf loyalists in the PML out of the arrangement by saying that “nothing like PML-Q exists now”.

The unofficial election results give 113 seats to PPP, 84 to PML-N and 14 to ANP, including the reserved seats for women and non-Muslim minority communities they ought to get in proportion to their strength of directly elected general seats.

That makes a combined strength of 211 seats and, with the possibility of many of more than 30 independents joining either of them, the three parties will have a much more comfortable majority in the 342-member lower house than about 200 the previous PML-led coalition managed with the help of turncoats, whose unethical defections were facilitated by the president’s suspension of an anti-defection law.

Though the PML-N leader seemed seeking similar defections from the PML-Q, originally formed by PML-N defectors --- as he told a news conference in Lahore on Tuesday that anybody wishing to return to the “mother-party” would be welcome --- the elected lawmakers cannot do it without risking their membership as the anti-defection law is in force now.