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Opposition meets amid anti-Musharraf protests

Latest update : 2008-02-21

Leaders of the main Pakistani opposition parties met Thursday to discuss a govt. coalition as police clashed with thousands of lawyers calling for the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary.

The widower of Pakistan's slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto met political leaders to discuss forming a coalition on Thursday as police clashed with protesters opposed to President Pervez Musharraf.
  
Asif Ali Zardari was set to hold talks with ex-premier Nawaz Sharif on an alliance that could lead to the impeachment of Musharraf following the defeat of the president's allies in parliamentary elections on Monday.
  
With other smaller parties on their side, they are close to the two-thirds majority they would need to seek Musharraf's impeachment, leaving him in the most precarious position since he seized power in a 1999 coup.
  
Thursday's talks came as police teargassed lawyers calling for the restoration of the country's deposed chief justice in the southern city of Karachi and thousands of protesters gathered in other cities.
  
Ex-chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf under emergency rule in November, said in a telephone address to the lawyers in Karachi that there was no constitutional hurdle to judges getting their jobs back.
  
"I was deposed by an executive order and I can be restored by an executive order. There is no need of two-thirds majority of the parliament," said Chaudhry, who remains under house arrest in Islamabad.
  
In the eastern city of Lahore about 2,000 lawyers chanted "Go, Musharraf, go" and "Restore independence of judiciary" during a protest on Thursday.
  
Musharraf has rejected calls to quit in the wake of his allies' defeat. He has been backed for most of his time in office by the United States as a key ally against Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
  
The embattled leader, who stepped down as army chief late last year, extended an offer of cooperation to his rivals on Wednesday, calling for a "harmonious coalition" after the polls.
  
But his foes have shown little sign of wanting to work with him so far.
  
Zardari's first meeting on Thursday was with the leader of a small ethnic Pashtun secular grouping, the Awami National Party (ANP), which defeated hardline Islamic parties in the country's insurgency-hit northwest.
  
"We have decided to work together for the interest of Pakistan, democracy and supremacy of democratic institutions, and rule of law in the country," Zardari said after the meeting.
  
The PPP emerged as the largest party after the elections, followed by Sharif's party and then the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q. The ANP became the third biggest opposition party.
  
ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan said he and Zardari had agreed "in principle to go together for supremacy of democracy" but said there were some issues which still needed to be resolved.
  
The fate of former chief justice Chaudhry is one of the central issues to the formation of the coalition and about how directly it will take on Musharraf.
  
Sharif has promised that his first act in government would be to seek the restoration of all judges including Chaudhry, by the use of an executive order granted to new prime ministers when they take office.
  
If Chaudhry gets his job back he could overturn Musharraf's controversial victory in a presidential election in October and oust him as president.
  
But party officials said the PPP was not keen on making any coalition deal that would involve a public commitment to bringing Chaudhry back.
  
Analysts say Musharraf will try to divide Zardari and Sharif and persuade Zardari to form a coalition with his own parties.
  
Bhutto -- who was assassinated in a suicide attack in December that the government has blamed on Al-Qaeda -- had been in talks with Musharraf on a possible power-sharing deal in the months before her death.

Date created : 2008-02-21

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