'We Will Work Together'

In yet another major setback for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the leaders of the two political parties that won the most seats in last Monday's general election on antigovernment and anti-Musharraf platforms have agreed in principle to form a coalition government of national consensus in Islamabad. Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, and Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in a military coup in 1999, appeared at a chaotic joint press conference late Thursday night in the capital and surprised most Pakistanis with their rapid accord. Zardari, whose party won the most seats, ceded the floor to his new partner to make the historic announcement. "We have agreed on a common agenda," Sharif said. "We will work together to form a government." Said Zardari, "We intend to work together in our struggle for democracy."

It was a hard second blow to Musharraf, whose party was routed in Monday's election. Up until Thursday evening (when Zardari and Sharif met for the first time since the election), it was not clear whether the two men who had opposed Musharraf would find a way to reconcile with each other. There were rumors that Zardari would make some sort of deal with Musharraf's defeated party—as Musharraf apparently hoped. Government lawyers even reopened a corruption case against Zardari in Switzerland, apparently as a pressure tactic. Sharif publicly held firm, saying that Musharraf should resign and that the judges Musharraf sacked (fearing they would overturn his re-election last November to a new five-year term as president) should immediately be restored. Some Pakistanis thought Zardari was not prepared to go far enough to meet Sharif's rather stern demands and that a strong anti-Musharraf coalition would fall apart even before it was glued together.

Now it appears that those fears were unfounded. Zardari and Sharif agreed that the first order of business for the new government, which will be formed over the next few days with the PPP and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N at the core, will be to call for a United Nations investigation into Bhutto's assassination late last December. Most Pakistanis are convinced that Musharraf's regime was, if not somehow peripherally involved in the suicide attack that killed her, at least negligent in not providing adequate security. A U.N. investigation, which Musharraf ruled out, will be widely welcomed.

Perhaps more important, the two men agreed that they would urge parliament to repeal a constitutional amendment put in place by Musharraf that gives the president the power to dismiss summarily parliament's lower house, the national assembly, and the prime minister. As of now the PPP and the PML-N do not have the two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to amend the constitution. But given the mood of the country and Musharraf's unpopularity, both men do have a reasonable chance of cobbling together such broad support in parliament. If Musharraf is stripped of that constitutional power, he becomes a severely weakened politician.

To make matters worse for the president, both men said they agreed in principle to restore the 60 judges, including the activist and popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, to the bench. Should that happen, Musharraf's re-election would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional and he'd be stripped of his office.

Even if he is not removed from office constitutionally and somehow manages to cling to some sort of presidential prerogatives, Musharraf will be under constant pressure. That might leave Pakistan paralyzed by the constant struggle between the president and the national assembly.

Musharraf is not the only loser if Zardari and Sharif follow through on their joint agreement tonight. So is President George W. Bush's Pakistan policy, which depended heavily on Musharraf. The White House may still see Musharraf as its most reliable Pakistani partner in pursuing the so-called war against terror in Pakistan. But a weakened Musharraf may not be able to deliver anything. He will probably be obsessed with the fight for his own political survival, as he has been for the past year, leaving him with little time to think about fighting extremism. Now Musharraf appears to be more of an obstacle to Pakistan's progress than an asset.