The counting is nearly complete in Pakistan's general elections. With all but a handful of seats in the National Assembly decided, the country now heads into uncertain political waters.
Pakistan's first elections since a bloodless army coup three years ago have yielded a hung parliament, with no single party commanding enough seats to form a government on its own.
The party loyal to President Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler, emerged with at least 77 seats, more than any other party, but far less than a majority of the 342-seat National Assembly.
The Pakistan People's Party of self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto came in second, with at least 62 seats. Ms. Bhutto, who was convicted of corruption for acts while in office, was barred from running.
But, in an electoral shocker, a coalition of six Islamic parties scored at least 49 seats. Religious parties have never won more than four seats before. The coalition, which ran on an anti-Western, anti-Musharraf platform, also swept provincial assembly elections in the Northwest Frontier Province and may take control of the provincial assembly in Baluchistan as well.
President Musharraf has pledged to relinquish executive authority to the new prime minister, whoever it may be. But he will keep the elected government on a tight leash, as he still holds authority to dismiss parliament.
In a VOA interview, Interior Minister Moindeen Haider said the parties are free to negotiate among themselves about the formation of a new government. "The man who commands a majority in the parliament will be allowed to speak to other smaller parties to form a viable coalition," he said. "This is what we are expecting because it seems that no party may have a strong majority to form the government by themselves. So there will be discussions among themselves. And I hope that this happens in a very free and transparent manner."
But power sharing is not a tradition in Parkistan. In previous elections, between 1990 and 1997, the democratic period between military governments, there was always a clear winner, able to form a government without partners.
The Islamic coalition has the potential to be a power broker and wring concessions from the government. But the six parties in it have never worked particularly well together, as they have strong theological, as well as political, differences.