Pakistani Party Quits Cabinet Over Justices

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 12 -- Pakistan's fragile governing coalition cracked open Monday as one of its major parties withdrew from the cabinet, less than three months after elections that had united rival factions opposed to President Pervez Musharraf.

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, announced that his party would leave all federal posts after talks broke down with the Pakistan People's Party over how to restore the country's former chief justice and 60 other judges who had been fired in November by Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler at the time.

Sharif, a former prime minister, said his party would remain in Parliament and had no desire to damage the government or the country. Looking grim and exhausted after days of negotiations, he told journalists that his decision was a "bitter pill, but we had to do it . . . we do not want to destabilize the democratic process."

The split was seen by analysts as a significant blow to Pakistan's progress toward mature democratic rule and a deep disappointment to the public, which ousted Musharraf's party at the polls in February and had demanded the restoration of the judges during months of unprecedented civic protests.

Analysts also said the judicial dispute -- and by extension, the question of Musharraf's future -- would now likely drag on, distracting the new government from addressing more important national problems, especially battling radical Islamist fighters and rebuilding the badly ailing economy.

"This is a huge setback for the government," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani security analyst based in Washington. He noted that Sharif's pullout may give Musharraf a chance to reassert his political strength. "This crisis will distract attention from critical issues, and the real losers will be the people of Pakistan," he said.

For the past month, Pakistanis watched with sinking hopes while Sharif and his archrival, Pakistan People's Party leader Asif Ali Zardari, held three rounds of negotiations over the judicial dispute.

Sharif set Monday as a final deadline for Zardari to agree on a plan to restore the dismissed judges and bring the matter to Parliament. But Zardari, who took his post after the December assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been more ambivalent about the judges. He has said that the courts had failed to help him when he spent a decade in jail on unproven corruption charges.

A final round of talks between the two in London broke off with no agreement over the weekend, even after the top U.S. regional diplomat met there separately with both men and privately urged them to reconcile. Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, insisted on a plan to bring back the ousted judges and demote those who took the oath of office under Musharraf's rule; Zardari, who benefited politically and legally from Musharraf's court purge, insisted that the president's appointed judges keep their full powers.

Public opinion here has tended to blame Zardari for being intransigent. Sharif, despite the potential damage from his cabinet pullout, is widely seen as having taken the moral high ground on an issue that drew an unprecedented public outcry here last year and quickly became a first major test for Pakistan's new government.

"This is a defining moment for Pakistan," said Ehsan Iqbal, a top aide to Sharif and one of nine cabinet members from the Muslim League who will leave his post Tuesday. "Without the rule of law, without an independent judiciary, the country cannot move ahead democratically or constitutionally."

In Washington, the State Department said the makeup of the Pakistani government would not affect bilateral cooperation. "How they arrange themselves politically, the platform of the government, those are going to be decisions for the Pakistani government to make," spokesman Sean McCormack said.

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