In an early sign of instability in the new government in Pakistan, the junior partner in the coalition said Monday that it was withdrawing from the Cabinet over the government’s failure to reinstate the Supreme Court judges dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf.
The move by that partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, to vacate its nine posts in the 24-member Cabinet, including the Finance Ministry, was a step short of leaving the coalition and causing the collapse of the government altogether. But it was a clear indication of just how fragile the coalition remained.
The leader of the party, Nawaz Sharif, said he was standing firm on a pledge made by the coalition in March to bring back 57 supreme and high court judges, including the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, after their dismissal under emergency rule last November.
In protracted negotiations that collapsed Sunday, the senior member of the coalition, the Pakistan Peoples Party led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, insisted that judges appointed during the emergency by President Musharraf as loyalists to him should also be retained.
“Complications kept on being created,” Sharif said at a news conference. “We made a promise to the nation, we couldn’t fulfill it, so we are quitting the Cabinet.”
Sharif said the party would not join the opposition, and would continue to work with its partner, issue by issue. But the duration of the two parties’ marriage was a matter of conjecture on Monday.
“Several months,” said Ashtar Ausaf Ali, a senior legal adviser to Sharif.
A confidant to Sharif, Nisar Ali Khan, who is among the ministers who will withdraw from the Cabinet, described relations between the two parties as “cool.”
Explaining his decision, Sharif said he had refused to recognize the judges appointed by Musharraf — and who now sit on the Supreme Court — because he considered their appointments during the emergency rule illegal.
Sharif said he would immediately file nominating papers to run for parliament in a by-election in June. A seat in parliament would give Sharif, who was twice prime minister in the 1990s, the potential to become a much stronger voice in the escalating contest with Zardari, who has declared he will stay out of the legislature.
In a statement after Sharif’s news conference, the Pakistan Peoples Party said it had “no differences” with its coalition partner over the restoration of the judiciary. “The only point of disagreement is the method of restoration,” said Sherry Rehman, central information secretary of the party.
Rehman said that the Pakistan Peoples Party would still try to resolve the issue “amicably” and that the Cabinet posts left open by the Pakistan Muslim League-N would not be filled.
The essence of the feud over the judges revolved around the future of Musharraf, regarded by the Bush administration as a strong ally in the campaign against terrorism. Musharraf no longer leads the army, but remains president.