Ahmed Rashid, guest columnist and writer on Pakistan, sees signs for optimism at the prospect of a coalition government in Pakistan after the parliamentary elections.
Mr Musharraf's support in parliament has dwindled
The decision by Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to work towards a coalition government could prove a major step forward in lifting Pakistan out of its political morass and putting it back on the rails.
The new alliance is between the Pakistan People's Party - the left-of-centre group that won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the 18 February elections and is now led by the widower of assassinated Benazir Bhutto - and the Pakistan Muslim League-N group, led by Mr Sharif which came in a close second.
However, the proposed coalition government could have to face continuing behind the scenes efforts by President Pervez Musharraf and the intelligence agencies to undermine them even before they are allowed to govern.
Mr Musharraf's agents, backed by a section of the Washington establishment, is reported to have been secretly trying to persuade Mr Zardari to go into alliance with the former ruling party - the Pakistan Muslim League-Q group.
The PML-Q has been decimated in the elections - 23 ministers lost their seats and today it is leaderless, visionless and without an agenda - except to continue supporting Mr Musharraf.
The proposed new coalition could prove hugely positive for Pakistan's four provinces.
In the North Western Frontier Province that has been torn apart by civil war, the majority of seats have been won by a PPP ally, the Awami National Party (ANP).
The ANP has perhaps some of the most seasoned and battle-hardened politicians in the country - a pedigree that goes back to the 1930s.
It has tried, despite blockages put up by Mr Musharraf, to foster a more modern and moderate image of Pashtun nationalism than the one put up by the Pakistani Taleban and al-Qaeda. Now it will have every chance of success.
In Sindh province that has previously been torn apart by the bloodshed perpetrated by the Sindhis represented by the PPP and the Urdu speaking Mohajirs represented by the MQM, there is now an offer by Mr Zardari for both parties to form a coalition government.
Nawaz Sharif may soften demands to restore sacked judges
That would be hugely welcomed by the people of Karachi and other urban centres in the province who have often borne the brunt of past violence.
In Balochistan, Mr Zardari has promised to talk to the Baloch nationalist leaders, all of whom boycotted the elections. The nationalists and separatists are leading a guerrilla war in the province against the army and Mr Musharraf refused to hold any dialogue with them. So far they have not responded to Mr Zardari's offer.
Punjab, the country's largest and most important province would be most likely ruled by Mr Sharif's PML-N because it has the largest number of seats in its assembly. But if there is co-operation at the national level, there is unlikely to be any major rift between the PPP and the PML-N as there was in the late 1980s, when one rival party ruled the centre and the other ruled Punjab.
So for the first in more than a decade the country could be ruled collectively by parties who have separate strengths in each province and who agree on a minimum agenda to fight terrorism, reduce inflation, get the army out of politics and strengthen civilian institutions like the judiciary.
Mr Sharif had been demanding an immediate reinstatement of those judges sacked and jailed by Mr Musharraf. But he seems to have watered down his appeals in the light of advice from Mr Zardari, who perhaps has the same goals but wants to go about it more slowly.
Asif Zardari spent years in jail under President Musharraf
Mr Zardari does not immediately want to annoy the army and those around Mr Musharraf. Nor has Mr Zardari endorsed Mr Sharif's earlier call to impeach Mr Musharraf. That too is likely to be put on the backburner.
What is likely to emerge is that Mr Musharraf himself will be nudged backwards into a much weaker role as new army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani forms a new relationship with the country's civilian leadership and assures them that the army will not be used to undermine them.
That would cut away Mr Musharraf's powers and his chances of continuing to dominate the political spectrum.
All this may come as a blow to President George W Bush who appears to trust no Pakistani in office except for Mr Musharraf.
However there are now signs of a new school of thought brewing in the state and defence departments that goes against Mr Bush's views, which are heavily influenced by Vice President Dick Cheney.
The State Department under Condoleezza Rice has not dared to even discuss a new Pakistan policy in the past, because of fears of angering the White House. Now it seems just such a process is underway, following the massive defeats of Mr Musharraf's supporters at the polls.
Washington should also consider the degree to which the new government is likely to be strongly welcomed in the region.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan will be hoping to see a real crackdown on the Taleban leadership that have been given sanctuary in Pakistan and he knows and has a good relationship with many of the new leaders in the PPP, the ANP and the PML-N.
The military has been fighting separatists in Balochistan
India will be hoping to see greater progress in confidence-building measures between the two states that could help start a dialogue on resolving the Kashmir dispute.
Iran will be less apprehensive that Pakistan may do a deal under the table with the Americans to help subvert Iran.
Russia, China and the five Central Asian states are likely to support the new process in the hope that it will bring stability and end the army's on-off support for Islamic militancy which has allowed Islamic militants from their countries to set up shop in Pakistan's tribal areas.
There is plenty of reason to argue that Pakistan has benefited hugely from the elections.
Much will now depend on how willing Mr Musharraf is to accept defeat gracefully.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He is the author of three books including Taliban and, most recently, Jihad. He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past 25 years.
Here are a selection of your comments
There is no doubt these elections have injected a new life into every citizen of Pakistan. Ethnic and tribal divisions in Pakistan always meant that the country had had a North-South and an east-west division in terms of political persuasions in the past. Now the major parties instead of ruling, one in government and one opposition, can actually sit together, rule together and hence cause a unity throughout Pakistan across all ethnic divisions. This is possibly the best opportunity Pakistanis will get to form a coalition against poverty, illiteracy, extremism and corruption. Military rule, sadly has been advertently or inadvertently fuelling those factors.
Farhan Arif, Sydney, Australia
For the sake of democracy in Pakistan President Musharraf has only one option: Exit immediately and gracefully on a high note
Dr Azhar Amil, Oklahoma City, USA
I believe Mr Rashid's expectations from a powerful coalition government at the centre are shared by all the citizens except a rather exaggerated depiction of the state of affairs in the country, especially his comment on Sindh. After mentioning the north western province of the country he says in the same vein that Sindh too has been torn apart by bloodshed between Sindhis and Mohajirs (refugees who migrated from India after the creation of Pakistan), which is but too one-sided view of facts. There has been some isolated incidents but no organised bloodshed between the two communities. In fact Sindhis never showed any sings of hatred for the people who had arrived in their towns and cities as refugees and gradually become masters of their own destiny. Sindhis feel no shame in confessing that they have learnt many good things from their guests.
Akhtar Pathan, Karachi, Pakistan
Ahmed Rashid's great optimism based upon his analysis of the situation in Pakistan in the aftermath of the election there I wish could infect everybody well enough. Most of the possibilities he has seen- in all the provinces in Pakistan-seem to be positive enough, thanks to the following emergent factors: PPP-MQM congruency for the first time in Sindh, PPP-PML-N rapprochement in Punjab, PPP's now dominant Awami allies in NWFP, and PPP leader (Zardari)'s invitation to Balochis, who had boycotted the recently concluded elections to join in talks with the main national parties over Balochi future within Pakistan do inspire positive feelings. General Kayani's declared willingness to stay out of the business of civilian affairs in country's governance can also be a positive factor.
Sauri P. Bhattacharya, Plano, Tx. 75074, USA
I am not surprised to see this new article. Like all the earlier articles it is no doubt a one sided view. We shouldnt forget be it Zardari or Nawaz Sharif they came back on basis of a deal and hence they are bound by it. Let time pass and see how far this courtship go and last.
Siraj Ahsan, Dubai, UAE
Now that the elections are over, Pakistan can only go forward in the path of a secular modern democracy. Even in a hot bed of Talibanism, a secular party like ANP has won which proves Pakistan is turning away from fundamentalism. The best combination will be President Musharaff continuing as head of state and a coalition of the secular parties. Pakistan must seize the opportunity and make permanent peace with India even without Kashmir issue resolution. There are more important issues than Kashmir. Unless Pakistan is held together as one unit, Kashmir will only add to the eternal bleeding of Pakistan's economy. A man doesn't live by "Kashmir" ego alone. Pakistanis need peace and non-violence in their lives back.
Rabin Mahanta, Sugarland, Texas, US
The West and especially USA and EU should analyse the results of elections and must support people of Pakistan instead of supporting one individual. After all it is the people who will fight against terrorism and extremism for the sake of their own interest. They have suffered a lot and must be encouraged. The political groups and parties who have secured their mandate deserve honour and respect by all.
Aijaz Abbasi, Karachi Pakistan
I have always believed that the Pakistani Army is its people's worst enemy, and this article says it again.
Arun Patel, San Jose, CA, USA
Your article suggests that the army has under Musharraf supported Islamic militancy inside Pakistan, allowing "Islamic militants...to set up shop in Pakistan's tribal areas". This is an absurd allegation considering that the reason why soldiers are being attacked every week by suicide bombs is because of the army's efforts to fight Islamic militants
Steve Wright, London
The two politicians Ahmed Rashid is talking so fondly of - Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif - both had their chances twice, each. The country was brought to her knees all those four times, judiciary was attacked, freedom of speech was curtailed, Taleban were supported, Indian-occupied-Kashmir was attacked, and economy was ruined.
Omarzai, NYC, USA
The final result appears to be a split verdict: Without giving an absolute majority to any one party, the people want the politicians of all parties to work together to serve the nation rather than dissipate their energies fighting each other. The defeat of the right wing religious parties explodes the myth that Pakistan is in danger of falling prey to the fundamentalists.
Riaz Haq, California, USA
This article seems very optimistic, if all of this really happens, nothing like it. But Nawaz Sharif should eventually do what he said before the elections, restore the judiciary. We should not forget what both PPP and PML-N had done to the country previously, the people should not expect much from them without being completely hopeless. None the less, the PML-Q drubbing has made 9/10 people in Pakistan happy!
Asim Abdul Hameed, Karachi
Major obstacles like extremism and violent movements, high core inflation and creation of jobs still remain, not to mention education, health, etc. that can occupy everyone for five years. The parties need to move on beyond trying to live in the past of what happened and start solving these real problems head-on.
Mobeen Khan, NJ, USA
Rashid, Great job! You just forgot to mention the real winners - Pakistani people who against all odds brought this mini revolution. This election shows how politically savvy Pakistani people are even though they have been deprived of democracy for the most of their short history. This election proves that Pakistanis deserves democracy more so than the westerners.
Haad Bajwa, Lahore, Pakistan
I am a writing my doctoral thesis on underdeveloped economies and found that under Musharraf Pakistan's average GDP growth was 10% each year, while when Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari were in power in the past it was less than 5% each year. Surely these two people can't be better for Pakistan's economy?
For the first time in decades peoples power have changed the history's course in Pakistan. The lawyers movement and the involvement of civil society in ending this dictatorial period have proved fruitful but above all the awareness among the masses regarding the governance of the country is commendable.
Anam Gill, Lahore
All in all, a good, optimistic story. Our country is having a defining moment, much depends on the two major parties, who I believe have long been in the politics to gain that very maturity required to get through this crucial period. But I disagree with Mr. Rashid's comments "Nawaz Sharif may soften demands to restore sacked judges", and "Mr Sharif had been demanding an immediate reinstatement of those judges sacked and jailed by Mr Musharraf. But he seems to have watered down his appeals in the light of advice from Mr Zardari, who perhaps has the same goals but wants to go about it more slowly". Backing even an inch off his stance would be the last thing in Mr. Sharif's mind. He's come of age.
Hammad Shah, Karachi, Pakistan
Things are indeed looking positive in Pakistan. They must be, as Mr Ahmed Rashid has been a perennial pessimist as far as Pakistan's future is concerned. Our people have shown that all the doom and gloom agents, which include most of western press, were wrong and Pakistanis will sort out their own problems if outside interference stops.
Ajay, Lahore, Pakistan
It is a very readable article showing good insight. I am one of those (emotionally attached to Pakistan, especially Faisalabad, Pind Dadan Khan, Lahore) who migrated to India after Partition and is looking forward to see more friendly relation between the two countries. These elections has given lot of hope for stability of Pakistan provided the political parties show farsightedness and cease the opportunity.
Prof MK Khera, Delhi, India
There can be no bigger gift for India than a stable Pakistan with a democratic process which this election and subsequent alliance has hopefully restored. The people of Pakistan are truly our brothers and sisters and their true inner voice is peace and harmony with us. On a personal note my mother grew up in what is Pakistan today and we have first hand information on how good the people of Pakistan are.
Ashok Dorairaja, Buzau, Romania
The more Pakistan becomes democratic in its set-up, the more are the chances of the entire South Asian (SAARC) region will stabilise and progress. It should benefit India. Fingers crossed.
Rajesh Raheja, Delhi, India
I humbly request all concerned quarters to please let the system work at its own and parties mandated to govern should be given a fair chance to show their ability. People have lot of hopes and expectation from these leaders and must turn up to the expectations of their voters and should deliver as promised
Zulfiqar Hussain, Islamabad/Pakistan
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