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Election Sets Pakistan Into Uncharted Waters

Initial returns in Pakistan's elections show that the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has won the largest number of seats in parliament, the party of its long-standing rival has come in second place, and the ruling party is lagging in third. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, now the jockeying for power begins.

Winning a parliamentary election is a relative term if you gain the largest number of seats but fall short of a clear majority. Such an outcome requires the top vote-getter to shop around for a coalition partner. But for the Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, the choices in that shop are limited.

Monday's election was widely seen as a referendum on President Pervez Musharraf, who has ruled Pakistan since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1999. Voters clearly showed their disapproval of Mr. Musharraf. His party, the the PML-Q, came in third behind the PPP and the PML-N, the party of former-prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

But, despite his party's poor showing, Mr. Musharraf remains president. He won re-election last year by an electoral college of the national and provincial assemblies that was stacked with his supporters. Farzana Shaikh, a South Asia analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says his fate is in the hands of the two remaining major political parties.

"These are all early days. President Musharraf is clearly under immense pressure at the moment. There have been calls for his resignation. I don't believe he is going to go down without a fight. But, really, I think we have to wait to see what kind of agreement the two major parties can come to between themselves," he said.

PPP chairman Asif Zardari, husband of the party's murdered leader Benazir Bhutto, says he wants the Sharif-led party to join the PPP in a governing coalition. But analysts say that will be difficult. The two parties have little in common except a shared distaste for Mr. Musharraf and have a history of animosity dating back to the 1990s, when the prime ministers' chair alternated between Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif until Mr. Musharraf took power.

To complicate matters, Zardari is a controversial figure even within the PPP. Former State Department officer Daniel Markey, a South Asia analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it will be a tough task for Zardari to sell a power-sharing deal to the party faithful. "Asif Zardari is already facing a lot of potential for fissures within the party. Zardari is by no means a recognized leader in the way that Benazir Bhutto was. He has to watch his back within the party, he has to avoid a complete breakdown," he said.

Zardari did not run for parliament himself. If the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's party link up, the PPP would likely put up longtime party stalwart Makhdoom Amin Fahim as candidate for prime minister.

The two parties together would still not be able to command the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Mr. Musharraf. But Farzana Shaikh points out that they could circumvent the impeachment route by voting to reinstate the judges Mr. Musharraf fired last year. "That would mean that a case could immediately be filed in the restored courts and the verdict could then possibly go against President Musharraf, declaring his re-election as unconstitutional and illegal," he said.

Many analysts believe that Mr. Musharraf's only chance for political survival is if he tries to drive a wedge between the PPP and the PML-N But does Mr. Musharraf, who ruled unchallenged until last year, have the political will to put up a fight against a newly elected and reinvigorated opposition? Some analysts believe that if he sees the deck is stacked against him, he could decide to just quit the game and resign.