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Pakistani leaders' rift strains stability

Top parties missed a joint deadline Wednesday to reinstate judges deposed by President Musharraf.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2008



NEW DELHI

Pakistan's ballot-box revolution, which resoundingly repudiated the government and policies of President Pervez Musharraf on Feb. 18, is in danger of faltering.

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A month after they joined forces, the parties that routed Mr. Musharraf's allies have reached an impasse that threatens their partnership. The point of contention is a promise made by both the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) to reinstate judges sacked by Musharraf within 30 days of taking office. The deadline expires Wednesday.

The disagreement could once again throw Pakistan's politics into disarray and halt the country's recent progress toward a more robust democracy in which civilian politicians united to seize power from Pakistan's historic powerbroker, the military.

"After Feb. 18, not only Musharraf was on the defensive, but the ability of the military to call the shots was under severe pressure," says Shafqat Mahmood, a former government minister who now writes for The News, a national newspaper.

If the coalition splinters, "this would be a historic opportunity missed," he adds.

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif met with his PPP counterpart, Asif Zardari, in Dubai Wednesday to try to resolve the situation. No announcement had been made by early Wednesday evening, Pakistan time, but Mr. Sharif has repeatedly said that he will accept nothing less than the full restoration of the judges deposed by Musharraf during his six-week state of emergency imposed last November.

If Mr. Zardari fails to agree with those terms – as has been the case for the past 30 days – it could set off a scramble in the month-old parliament. The government would not be in immediate danger of falling. Sharif has said he would not withdraw his support of the coalition, but would rather remove his ministers from the cabinet.

In practice, though, "it would realign politics," says Mr. Mahmood, and the result could be a reemergence of the PPP-Musharraf alliance that the United States so desperately sought in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.

The US spent months attempting to broker a power-sharing deal between Mr. Zardari's wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Musharraf, before she was assassinated last December, only for it to fall apart. Before her death, Bhutto even accused members of Musharraf's government of trying to kill her.

But in Pakistan's ever-shifting political calculus, longtime enemies can sometimes become friends, and Zardari has reason to oppose the reinstatement of the judges – despite his agreement 30 days ago to restore them to office.

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