In Islamabad, representatives of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) -- previously headed by slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- met on February 21 with their counterparts from the other major force to emerge victorious from the polls, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The parties say they will form a coalition government in which the secular and pacifist Awami National Party (ANP), an ethnic-Pashtun party from the Northwest Frontier Region (NWFP), is also expected to play a role.
Pakistani media reports suggest that PPP Deputy Chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim is the most likely candidate for prime minister.
But as they chart their future course, the winning parties face two pressing issues: what to do about a decidedly weakened Musharraf, and how to change the deeply unpopular president's domestic counterterrorism policies, which are widely seen in Pakistan as being heavy-handed.
Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has urged all political parties to unite against what he called dictatorship. "The people have given their verdict," he said on February 20. "Musharraf never understood this decision of the people. He closed his eyes. And he used to say, 'I will go when the public wants me to go.' Now the public has voiced what it wants."
Musharraf, for his part, says he looks forward to working with the new government and will serve out his full term as president. The United States has also expressed hope that the new Pakistani government can find a way to work with Musharraf.
For Washington, Pakistan represents a key front in the war on terror. The country's volatile tribal regions are home to Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, including possibly Osama bin Laden. Areas near the Afghan border have for months been the scene of suicide bombings and violent clashes with security forces. The situation represents a constant threat to the Afghan government, which is battling a Taliban insurgency across the border with key assistance from the U.S. military.
With violence in Pakistan surging in recent months, many Pakistanis now say they are fed up and want their new government to restore security to the country.Rejecting Islamist Militancy
Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who now heads the PPP, says his party will talk with Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan as well as with the nationalist insurgents in the southwestern Baluchistan Province. But just as Bhutto had vowed, Zardari has made clear that there would also be a military side to the government's strategy.
"It is a war of terror against Pakistan and we have to fight it as our war," he told reporters in Islamabad on February 19.
Pakistani voters' response to the militancy, and the Islamist parties it supports, was overwhelming. In the NWFP, the Islamist parties lost badly, while the secular ANP emerged as the single largest party in the provincial assembly.
Afrasiab Khattak, the ANP's provincial head in Peshawar, tells RFE/RL that the results showed that the Pashtuns yearn for peace and security in their homeland. "Our party has always said that we will not allow anybody to bring alien wars to our home," Khattak says. "We will try to cooperate with the central government and will try to convince them to adopt a foreign policy that will result in regional peace. The fire that is engulfing the Pashtun homeland now has its roots in regional and international conflicts. But unfortunately, the Pashtuns have been suffering because of it for the past 30 years."
In Islamabad, Sheikh Mansur Ahmed, a key PPP leader, agreed. He tells RFE/RL that the former Islamist-led NWFP government and certain elements in the central government had helped the militants. But he says the new government is likely to frown on such practices.
"I believe that we will see a decline in suicide-bomb attacks," Ahmed says. "By electing progressive forces, the people of the [NWFP] have rejected what Musharraf and his allies and the [alliance of Islamist parties] have been doing over the past eight years. These [elections] have weakened the murderers."
But just how the new government will change domestic security policies remains unclear. Key questions center around Sharif's influence on policy and the role of the military and intelligence services. Sharif, as prime minister, was known to have pursued policies in support of Islamist militants, while elements of both the military and intelligence services are believed to still back militants.
The United States has thrown its weight behind Musharraf. Washington may appreciate that the former general, despite pursuing what some see as a "two-faced" policy toward the militants, has also taken strong military action against them near the Afghan border, as has his successor as chief army commander, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
In Africa this week, President George W. Bush reiterated his support for the new government but indicated that the United States is still interested in seeing Musharraf in power.
"I appreciate the fact that President Musharraf has done exactly that which he said he was going to do," Bush said. "He said he'd hold elections, he said he would get rid of his emergency law, and so, it is now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government. And the question then is, 'Will they be friends of the United States?' I certainly hope so. We need Pakistan as an important ally."
Exactly what kind of ally, it seems, is the million-dollar question.