Pakistan is headed for a deadlocked parliament following the just-completed general elections. For the first time, no single party was able to secure an outright majority. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Gary Thomas looks at the altered political landscape in Pakistan.
For years, Pakistan's Islamic political parties were voices crying in the wilderness. In past election campaigns, they drew large and enthusiastic crowds to their rallies, but they never managed to win more than four seats in the National Assembly.
This time, they won a lot; enough to earn themselves a seat at the power-sharing table and enough to be a headache to any new government.
Running as a six-party coalition, the religion-based parties came in a strong third place in the national polls, and took control of at least one and perhaps two of the provinces bordering Afghanistan. The Islamic parties campaigned on an anti-Musharraf platform, sharply criticizing President Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler, and his assistance to the U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts in neighboring Afghanistan.
A party loyal to the president won the most votes, but fell far short of a majority in the 342-seat National Assembly. Second place went to the Pakistan Peoples' Party of the self-exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Ms. Bhutto was convicted of corruption-related offenses and was barred by President Musharraf from running.
These elections were the first since Mr. Musharraf seized power from then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup three years ago. Mr. Sharif is also in exile and did not contest in the polls. His party fared poorly in the vote.
Peter Manikas, Asia program director of the U.S. based National Democratic Institute, says the public was simply tired of the same faces and angered over the lack of choice.
"I think that reflects a growing polarization of society," he said. "Many people believe they have a choice between a military dictatorship and venal and ineffective political parties, and they're turning to the religious parties as an alternative."
But what the new government will look like or if it will be able to work together, remains to be seen. Power sharing is not a tradition in Pakistan, where one party has always won a majority. Bitter squabbling between mainstream parties has rendered past parliaments largely ineffective.
And, although the religious parties may now have a power-brokering role, it is not even certain that they will be able to remain united. There are strong political as well as theological differences among them.
Nisar Ali, who was petroleum minister in the last elected government and who won a seat in this election, says the politicians have learned their lesson.
"We have had our share of faults. I feel that the political governments do share a lot of blame that has gone into part of our political history," he said. " We have learned a lot from past mistakes. And I think that if the government allows a fair playing field, the politicians will come up to the expectations of the people."
President Musharraf has pledged to turn over executive power to the new prime minister - whoever that turns out to be. In an interview, Interior Minister Moindeen Haider says the military's role in politics is over.
"There will be no role for the military. The president made it very clear, and that it would be the elected prime minister who will have all the powers to govern and run this country. The parliament will be able to legislate freely," he said.
But Mr. Musharraf has institutionalized a political role for the military in a newly-established National Security Council, which will have both military and civilian representatives. And Mr. Musharraf, who heads the council, retains the power to dismiss parliament and has said he will do so if there is any return to what he deems to be bad governance.