ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of Pakistan’s coalition government and joined the opposition Monday, a blow to chances for political stability in the nuclear-armed country.
The dramatic break came one week after Pervez Musharraf resigned the presidency under pressure and amid a growing Islamist insurgency, which threatens Pakistan’s stability and that of neighboring Afghanistan.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N blamed Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party for failing to fulfill a pledge to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf fired last November.
The attempt to create a national unity government began after democratic elections in February in which no party won a majority. However, the coalition, under Zardari’s leadership, was always fragile, held together in part by a commitment to ousting Musharraf. After Musharraf resigned to avoid impeachment, there was little to hold them together.
Politicians and analysts said that Islamabad looked set to continue being convulsed by political intrigue rather than focusing on the challenge from Islamic extremists in its North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area, the territory that borders Afghanistan. That will be a setback for the Bush administration, which has urged Pakistan to tackle the Taliban- and al-Qaida-inspired militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, which is a base for the insurgency in Afghanistan.
“The law and order situation in NWFP and FATA will not be solved until there’s a stable government in Islamabad,” warned Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the ruling party in the North West Frontier Province and a member of Zardari’s coalition. “Saving lives should be the first issue, then we can look at the judges.”
The government won’t fall for now, but the Pakistan People’s Party will have to rely on the support of new partners, including a party that was close to Musharraf.
Sharif announced that he’ll back his own candidate for president, to challenge Pakistan People’s Party Chairman Zardari, who declared over the weekend that he’ll run for the post. Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a Supreme Court judge who retired in 2002, will be Sharif’s candidate.
At a news conference in Islamabad, Sharif brandished a signed agreement forged with Zardari earlier this month, which promised the restoration of the judges within 24 hours after ousting Musharraf. It was the third deadline the coalition had missed for the judges, a cause that Sharif has made the centerpiece of his politics. The deal, Sharif said, included having a nonpartisan new president until the powers of the presidency are reduced.
“We therefore feel that these repeated defaults and violations have forced us to withdraw our support from the ruling coalition and sit on the opposition benches,” Sharif said.
Zardari didn’t dispute Sharif’s account but pleaded for him to reconsider. Zardari admitted that the sticking point was reinstating deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, an activist judge. He seemed determined not to restore Chaudhry.