Though there is no decisive victor either at the centre or in any of the four provinces, slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) on Tuesday emerged as the single largest party in the national elections.
PPP secured 86 seats in the 272-member National Assembly but needs at least 50 more to form the government. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) took the second spot with 66 seats while the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) backed by President Pervez Musharraf trailed third with 49 seats.
The Muttahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) with its power base in urban Sindh got 19 seats, the Awami National Party (ANP) 10 and the religious alliance Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) could get only three seats in the National Assembly, a huge comedown from the 78 seats it had in the previous parliament.
Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, who now heads the PPP after his wife's assassination on Dec 27, came to Islamabad soon after results showed that his party was leading in the polls. He is scheduled to chair PPP's executive committee meeting in the evening before meeting Sharif in the capital.
Sharif, who had to rush to Mansehra to attend the funeral of his daughter's mother-in-law who died on Monday night, will be in Islamabad on Tuesday evening. "Several meetings are expected," his party's senior leader Zafar Ali Shah said.
MQM chief Altaf Hussain has already announced his support to PPP and PML-N in case they form a joint government at the centre. The ANP has also showed its interest in cooperating with the "anti-Musharraf" alliance.
Both Zardari and Sharif did not contest the elections and cannot become prime minister until they are members of the National Assembly. The prime minister has to be a member of the lower house of the parliament before taking oath of office. However, both have the option of contesting by-polls that can be held by mid-March.
According to PML-N senior vice-president Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, they would extend "conditional support to PPP in forming the government". He said they would go ahead to cooperate with the PPP if their demands were accepted.
"We want immediate restoration of the Supreme Court and high court judges," he said, giving his first demand about judges who were sacked on Nov 3 last year when Musharraf imposed emergency. Seven Supreme Court and 34 high court judges were sacked for not showing allegiance to Musharraf.
He added that the PPP would have to agree to give independence to the media and move a no-trust against President Musharraf.
"Justice Iftikhar will have to come and Musharraf will have to go," Hashmi told IANS, referring to sacked Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is under house arrest since Nov 3 when he was removed from his position.
Clearly, the PPP and PML-N had made big gains in elections that were held amid fears of violence and rigging allegations by the opposition against Musharraf and his allies.
Musharraf told TV news channels on Tuesday: "There should be reconciliation, and nothing should be done in anyone's personal interest. I believe in politics of conciliation, not of confrontation."
But Sharif, who returned to the country seven years of exile, has repeatedly said that he would not work with Musharraf.
Musharraf's ally, MQM chief Altaf Hussain, has been quick to announce support for the PML-N and PPP in forming governments in Islamabad and in the Sindh province.
Several top leaders of Musharraf-backed PML-Q lost in the polls, mostly to the PML-N in Punjab and to the PPP in Sindh.
PML-Q president and former prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain was defeated on both the NA seats he contested, including in his home constituency Gujarat by PPP candidate Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar.
Six-time winner and former minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed got a drubbing in Rawalpindi, where he has ruled for over two decades, by PML-N's Hanif Abbasi and Javed Hashmi.
Among the other big losers were former defence minister and close Musharraf aide Rao Sikandar Iqbal, PML-Q stalwart Hamid Nasir Chatta and former ministers Liaquat Jotoi, Hamayun Akhtar Khan and Ijazul Haq.
The results come as a huge setback to Musharraf, who left the army chief's position in December before taking oath as civilian president.
"His fate is in balance now...he may have to resign," a PML-Q leader said. Musharraf last month said that if the new parliament tried to impeach him he would prefer to resign rather to face humiliation.
In such a situation, Musharraf's best option could be to woo PPP instead of working with PML-N, said the leader who was considered very close to Musharraf in the previous set-up.