ISLAMABAD, Feb 21: Three parties that emerged as the main winners of Monday’s election said after their talks on Thursday they had agreed to form a coalition to govern at the centre and in provinces, but ticklish details of what could be a landmark combine of former political foes remained to be sorted out.

The outcome became known after Pakistan People’s Party chairman Asif Ali Zardari held separate meetings with Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif and Awami National Party president Asfandyar Wali at the start of a dialogue for what he visualises as a PPP-led “government of national consensus”.

Mr Sharif, whose party came second in the National Assembly after PPP, but topped in the Punjab legislature, said the two parties had agreed to respect each other’s mandate and would cooperate with each other in the centre as well as the provinces to complete their five-year terms in government.

Mr Wali, whose ANP has emerged as the largest group in the NWFP, said after the meeting with Mr Zardari earlier in the day that the two sides had agreed to be part of a coalition as well as to struggle jointly to realise their aims on four issues: provincial autonomy, judicial reforms, ‘war on terror’ and sovereignty of parliament.

However, the main show of the day was a joint news conference by Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif after their two-hour talks at the PPP leader’s residence, where they announced what seemed to be a meeting of minds even on some ticklish issues about the political future of President Pervez Musharraf and the independence of judiciary, including the reinstatement of about 60 judges of superior courts.

Mr Sharif said the two sides had also agreed to implement Charter of Democracy that he had signed with assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto in London in 2006 “in letter and in spirit”. That will look after the major issue of restoring the constitution to its pre-Oct 12, 1999 shape.

Mr Zardari, whose party also won a simple majority in the Sindh Assembly besides coming second in Punjab, the NWFP and Balochistan assemblies after the PML-N, ANP and PML-Q, respectively, told the news conference that talks between the two parties would continue in the future to “work out modalities” of their cooperation that could not be done in their meeting on Thursday. He said: “In principle, we have decided to stay together.”

The talks, which are likely to continue until the first session of the newly elected National Assembly expected to be called next month, came while pressure began to mount on the president to step down after a humiliating defeat of his loyalists and rejection of his policies in Monday’s election.

But the discredited regime seemed to be countering with its own pressure tactics such as pressing disputed long-standing charges against Mr Zardari in a Swiss court that he had stashed millions of dollars of ill-gotten money in Swiss banks, just as a PPP-led government seemed only days away, and a show of force on Thursday against protesting lawyers.

Some figures of the defeated parties even predicted the new coalition would last only a few months and PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain seemed to be provoking the PML-N chief by daring him to have the sacked judges reinstated.

Even apparent courtesy calls by western diplomats on Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif have led to speculations about possible urging to them to work with President Musharraf for fear his absence from the scene could weaken Pakistan’s key role in the so-called war against terrorism.

Although Mr Zardari avoided comments about his party’s chances of having to work with Mr Musharraf, Mr Sharif, in reply to a question if any deadline would be given for the president to resign, said he would prefer the now retired army chief departed “today”, but added: “The sooner he does, the better.”

On the same issue, the PML-N leader said: “The nation has given its verdict and he (Musharraf) should accept it.”

Asked about his party’s terms for joining the coalition, he said: “We have no demands from each other. We have accepted each other’s mandate. We strongly feel that we should support each other to complete the tenure.”

In reply to a question about the possibility of associating with the formerly ruling and pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q, Mr Zardari said: “We are not looking at pro-Musharraf forces. We believe that pro-Musharraf forces do not exist.”

But he has said the PPP would like the MQM to join the coalition.

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