ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s opposition, victors in the elections last month, agreed to form a government Sunday and directly challenged the country’s U.S.-backed president, Pervez Musharraf, by pledging to restore the senior judiciary he had sacked.
In a breakthrough, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, agreed to share power in a coalition. No single party emerged with a majority in the parliamentary election on Feb. 18. Three tense weeks followed, in which it looked as if Zardari and Sharif may not be able to work together.
“Musharraf and his cronies have been saying it’s a hung parliament. Even if it is, it’s against dictatorship,” Sharif said, at a press conference in a hill resort near Islamabad. “This is the people’s verdict against him … he should accept the facts.”
Previously, the People’s Party had been reluctant to reinstate the judges, preferring a less confrontation policy towards the president.
The announcement, at a televised news conference in the northern Punjab town of Murree, came as hundreds of lawyers protested in cities across Pakistan to mark the one-year anniversary of a decision by President Pervez Musharraf to remove the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Chaudhry’s removal and the disbarment of dozens of other judges touched off a constitutional crisis and sparked widespread instability in the nuclear-armed nation of 164 million. The political crisis worsened considerably, however, after Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3 and placed the chief justice and several other prominent judges and lawyers under house arrest.
In Islamabad, the capital, about 500 lawyers and their supporters marched Sunday to Chaudhry’s home to demand an end to his four-month house arrest.
Hundreds of police in riot gear fired tear gas into the crowd.
The Bush administration, which has strongly backed Musharraf since the Sept. 11 attacks did not immediately react to the political developments.
Even after Musharraf’s party was roundly defeated in last month’s parliamentary elections, the White House pressed for a continued role for the former Army chief of staff. In part, that was because the U.S. government hoped to avoid a debilitating political battle between Musharraf and the newly elected leaders.