Governing Coalition Collapses in Pakistan

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 25 -- Pakistan's ruling coalition broke apart Monday amid a political battle over the presidency, paralyzing the U.S.-backed government at a time when Taliban insurgents here and in neighboring Afghanistan appear to be gaining ground.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said he would oppose the candidacy of his onetime political partner Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People's Party and widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. President Pervez Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, resigned under threat of impeachment a week ago, and Parliament is set to elect his successor on Sept. 6.

Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, said he decided to leave the coalition government after Zardari announced plans Saturday to run for president and reneged on a promise to reinstate dozens of judges deposed under Musharraf's rule. Pakistan's judges and lawyers led the struggle against Musharraf and have demanded more power for the judiciary and stronger checks on the executive.

"We have been forced to take this decision, which we take with great regret," Sharif said Monday during a nationally televised news conference in Islamabad. "Zardari pledged in writing to reinstate the judges within one day of Musharraf leaving."

Sharif's party garnered the second-largest share of votes in national parliamentary elections in February, after campaigning aggressively on a promise to reinstate the judiciary. Zardari, who served several years in prison on corruption charges that were rescinded under an amnesty deal struck between Bhutto and Musharraf, has appeared reluctant to strengthen a judiciary whose leaders have sought to curtail the misuse of government power.

In Switzerland, where officials had been investigating money-laundering charges against Zardari, Geneva's prosecutor general, Daniel Zappelli, announced Monday that he had closed the case, saying an investigation had produced too little for him to continue, the Associated Press reported. The Swiss had been investigating allegations that Bhutto and Zardari used Swiss banks to launder millions of dollars in kickbacks. Bhutto and Zardari denied the allegations.

Zardari's Geneva lawyer welcomed the decision. "This result confirms what Mr. Zardari has argued since 1997," Saverio Lembo told the AP.

U.S. officials have tried to distance themselves from Pakistan's political crisis, saying that the election is an internal affair. But after devastating military setbacks in Afghanistan, U.S. officials have become increasingly vocal about Pakistan's lack of progress in containing the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which operate from remote mountain areas bordering Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, thousands of refugees have fled fighting between insurgents and the Pakistani military in the tribal areas. Many have sought shelter in eastern Afghanistan, which threatens to further complicate the U.S. military mission in the increasingly fractious region.

Sharif's party selected former Supreme Court chief justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui to run for president. A longtime political ally of Sharif, Siddiqui was appointed chief justice in July 1999 but was ousted months later when he refused to endorse the military coup led by Musharraf that ended Sharif's term as prime minister. A critic of Musharraf and Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies, Siddiqui is a highly respected figure in Pakistan's legal community and could pose a serious challenge to Zardari.

"He is the one who refused to take an oath under Musharraf's rule," Sharif said of Siddiqui. "This is a great Pakistani. His service to this country is unmatched."

Hours after Sharif announced Siddiqui's candidacy, Zardari, who assumed leadership of his party after Bhutto was assassinated in December, appealed to Sharif to rejoin the alliance in a televised address.

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