Pakistani Opposition Groups to Decide on New Government

Pakistan's opposition leaders were poised to decide on the makeup of a new coalition government Sunday after winning parliamentary elections last month, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the widow of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, met for talks at Sharif's home in Murree, a scenic hill resort near the capital, Islamabad.

Senior leaders from Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N have been discussing forming a new government since the Feb. 18 general elections.

"The meeting will formalize the working of negotiating teams from both the parties," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's party.

In the vote, the political allies of President Pervez Musharraf were trounced, leaving the U.S.-backed leader increasingly isolated. Bhutto's party won the most votes, followed by Sharif's grouping. They lack the two-thirds majority needed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament to impeach Musharraf.

Sadiq ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's party, said Saturday that Sharif and Zardari were expected to agree on the formation of the new government.

Local daily The News quoted Sharif as saying "the formation of government will be given final shape in Sunday's meeting."

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, wants Musharraf to quit and has insisted on the reinstatement of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and other judges fired by Musharraf.

On Saturday, Musharraf urged winners of the February elections to turn to setting up a government.

"Put the politics on the back burner and run the government," he said in a speech at the offices of state-run Pakistan Television in the city of Multan.

In a sign of Musharraf's diminished political authority and the growing clout of the mainstream opposition parties, seven lawmakers who contested the election as independents have since joined Bhutto's party, lifting its strength to 120, according to the Election Commission.

Four more independents have lined up with Nawaz Sharif, giving him 90 seats.

Voters returned just 51 lawmakers from the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q to the 342-seat National Assembly, or lower house of Parliament.

Eleven seats are yet to be filled, mainly because of litigation and the deaths of candidates, including Bhutto.