ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After two decades as bitter rivals, Pakistan’s top two political parties entered into an awkward group hug Thursday.
The Pakistan Peoples Party — the secular, leftist party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the religious, conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N announced a tentative agreement to form the next government.
Their odd-couple marriage comes three days after they routed the allies of pro-U.S. President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections and put more pressure on Musharraf to step down.
“He should resign today,” the Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif said Thursday.
The two party leaders — Sharif, a former prime minister, and the Peoples Party’s Asif Zardari, Bhutto’s widower — stopped short of saying whether the parliament would move to impeach Musharraf. Musharraf, who overthrew Sharif in a coup in 1999, has said he won’t leave.
After calling the shots for nearly nine years, Musharraf could be working with a government that has its own ideas.
The coalition will probably rethink Pakistan’s support for the U.S. war on terrorism, emphasizing negotiations with Taliban militants over an army campaign against them along the rugged Afghan border, said Tariq Jan, researcher with the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad.
Neither the Peoples Party nor the Muslim League won enough seats in the National Assembly to form a government on its own. So they found themselves in an attempt at reconciliation.
“It appears too good to believe,” Jan said. “The polarization was so deep and intense (that) I never felt they could come together.”
Many appeared eager for unity. “We pray they will sit together and form a government of national reconciliation,” said chef Tariq Mahmood, 39.
A poll by the non-partisan International Republican Institute last month found that 72% of Pakistanis wanted the coalition.
During a tumultuous 11 years of democracy — ended by Musharraf’s coup — the Muslim League took turns running the country with the Peoples Party, led by Bhutto until her assassination Dec. 27.
“The politicians have learned a lot of lessons,” said Hussain Ahmad Piracha, a politics professor at the International Islamic University here. “They used to fight each other. When politicians fight, who wins? The army.”
Mahsood Malik, group editor for the Urdu-language daily Ausuf and other newspapers, said, “This time they have a common opponent, a common enemy — Pervez Musharraf and the military establishment.”
Pakistanis watched the coalition talks as if they were a championship bout.
“The show is starting, and you don’t need a ticket,” Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, a leader of the pro-Musharraf party, joked Thursday.
Pakistanis are waiting to see whether the politicians get along and govern the country: “The ball is in their court,” Malik said. “They have to deliver now.”