The party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ruled out reconciliation with Pakistan's embattled military leader on Friday, a day after a court said he can return home ahead of crucial elections.
On another front threatening Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's future, the army said 60 soldiers and 250 militants had died in a month of bloody fighting near the Afghan border.
Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto, another banished ex-leader itching for a comeback, suggested that talks on a power-sharing deal for Musharraf to stay on as a civilian president had stalled.
"We haven't reached an agreement yet, so I'm not in a position to tell you where the negotiations are heading," Bhutto told Dawn News television.
Pakistan, once firmly under the US-allied general's control, is in the grip of political uncertainty less than two months before Musharraf plans to ask lawmakers for a new five-year term.
Pakistan's third period of direct military rule in its 60-year history began when Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999 for trying to fire him as army chief and sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia.
But Pakistan's emboldened Supreme Court, which recently quashed the general's attempt to fire its chief justice and is expected to consider whether he can legally extend his rule, ruled on Thursday that Sharif was free to come back.
His political survival clouded by his waning authority, Musharraf has begun talking of the need to forget the past and for moderates to unite to defeat religious extremism.
But officials are suggesting Sharif could be jailed again on his return and Sharif's party on Friday maintained its belligerent tone.
"There is no chance for any reconciliation" with Musharraf, said Sadique al-Farooq, a senior leader of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party (PML-N).
"It is out of question ... democracy and dictatorship cannot go together," he said.
Both the PML-N and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) expect to make gains in parliamentary and provincial elections due by January.
Before that, Musharraf plans to secure a fresh presidential term from lawmakers in the outgoing assemblies.
Bhutto, who fled in 1999 from corruption charges, has held out the possibility that Musharraf could seek re-endorsement from the parliament -- and that her party would back him if he gives up his army post and waters down his sweeping powers.
The PPP shares Musharraf's secular, socially liberal outlook and says it is negotiating a "facilitated return" to democracy with the unpopular general in order to avoid political chaos.
But with talks stalled, she said her party could still join Sharif and his supporters in a powerful antimilitary alliance.
"We have left the doors of our alliance open to them [Sharif's party]," she said.
Bhutto and Sharif as well as Pakistani commentators have been urging the US, which has bankrolled Musharraf's Pakistan with billions of dollars, to press for a return to full civilian rule.
"If the polls are to have any credibility, it is essential that all political parties and their leaders should be allowed to participate," the Dawn newspaper said in an editorial on Friday.
Musharraf insists the elections will go ahead despite swirling speculation that he could impose a state of emergency and postpone the polls by a year.