Their display of unity against President Pervez Musharraf further clouds the leader’s political future.
Asif Ali Zardari, husband of slain opposition leader Bhutto, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government was ousted in Musharraf’s 1999 coup, announced their pact after talks at a resort town in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Through the pact, they seek to reinstate the judges fired by the president and to strip Musharraf of certain powers.
In the capital, police fired tear gas at protesters who gathered outside the residence of the deposed Supreme Court chief justice to demand his reinstatement.
“The coalition partners are ready to form the government,” Sharif said at a news conference, reading from a joint statement, according to the Associated Press.
Zardari said his party had signed the agreement in honor of Bhutto, who was assassinated in a suicide attack on Dec. 27, and her desire to put Pakistan back on “the road to democracy.”
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 120 seats in the new 342-seat National Assembly, followed by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N with 90. The former ruling party aligned with Musharraf won 51 seats.
The two largest parties, both moderate and secular, have vowed to form a broad-based government, raising Western hopes of stability and renewed commitment to fighting al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
However, they are devoting most of their energy to cutting back Musharraf’s sweeping powers — a course the former military strongman seems unlikely to accept meekly.
Zardari and Sharif declared a breakthrough on two key issues: the makeup of the coalition and the future of the judiciary.
The Jamaiat-e-ulema-e-Islam, a major Islamic party, also has announced it agreed “in principle” to join the coalition.
Sharif said his party would be part of a federal coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party, which is expected to name its candidate for prime minister this week.
In return, Zardari agreed that the new parliament would pass a resolution within 30 days of convening to reinstate dozens of judges fired by Musharraf after he declared emergency rule on Nov. 3, 2007.
The leaders agreed that the judiciary would be restored “as it was on Nov. 2,” suggesting that ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry would return to his post.
On Sunday, about 600 demonstrators marched on Chaudhry’s Islamabad residence — where he has been under house arrest for four months — chanting “We want freedom.”
Police fired tear gas after some protesters tried to cut through barbed wire at concrete barricades that block the entrance to the house.
Several thousand people, including labor union members and journalists, gathered peacefully in the southern city of Karachi also demanding that Musharraf step down.
The White House considers Musharraf a favored ally in the fight against militants aligned with al-Qaida and the Taliban who have regrouped in Pakistan, but Musharraf has recently confronted a wave of public disapproval in his country.
He had no comment on the accord, The New York Times reported. As of late Sunday, the U.S. State Department and the White House also had no comment.
Zardari had seemed to stall on Sharif’s insistence that the judges be reinstated, apparently out of fear that the judges would reopen corruption cases filed against him in the 1990s, the Times reported.
He also was pressured by the United States and United Kingdom not to agree to the reinstatement of Chaudhry as chief justice since diplomats have criticized him for being unpredictable on matters related to terrorism, associates told the Times.
After the joint announcement, a lawyer who is active in the lawyers’ movement that has mobilized in favor of the restoration of the judges, Athar Minallah, said he was confident that the justices, including Chaudhry, would be reinstated.
“I don’t see any hurdle in the restoration of the judges now,” he said. “It’s a positive day for democracy in this country.”
The reinstatement of the judges of the Supreme Court and four High Courts in the provinces would represent a danger to Musharraf because the courts would probably be presented with new petitions seeking to overturn his re-election in October, lawyers said.
Musharraf said last week it would be a week or two more before the new National Assembly is convened but Sharif and Zardari called for the session to be called immediately, Reuters reported.
While the parties agreed on a coalition, questions have arisen in Bhutto’s party over its candidate for prime minister.
Zardari’s deputy chairman and Bhutto’s close aide, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, has been regarded as the likely choice for the job but a delay in nominating him has led to doubts, the AP reported.
Ahmed Mukhtar, a former commerce minister in Bhutto’s cabinet, has emerged as another contender, since Zardari himself is ineligible as he does not hold a seat in the assembly. Mukhtar, a close friend of Zardari’s, is a top executive of the Servis Group, an industrial conglomerate based in Punjab Province.