DEEPENING cracks in Pakistan's government call into question the stability of the country's democracy and threaten the future of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
At least four senior Cabinet ministers and a prime ministerial adviser have all resigned during the past week over differences with Mr. Sharif.
The troubles began earlier this year when the prime minister announced his intention to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives wide ranging powers to the president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The amendment was introduced by Pakistan's last military dictator, Gen. Zia ul Haq, in 1985. Among other powers, it gives the president the authority to dissolve the Federal Legislature and call fresh elections. Some senior government appointments and the military also came under the president's author ity.
Two of Sharif's predecessors have been sacked under presidential orders. Zia sacked Premier Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1988, and President Khan removed Benazir Bhutto from office in August 1990 on charges of corruption. The powers of the prime minister have been eroded, Sharif aides complain privately.
The dispute over the Constitution only widened, and divided politicians between those who favored Sharif's move from those who opposed it. "We are a new democracy," says one minister who opposes Sharif. "I found him moving too fast in trying to establish his authority."
In the latest resignation on Tuesday, Economic Minister Asseff Ahmed Ali accused the government of faltering on foreign policy commitments by not seriously dealing with complaints from other nations, especially Islamic countries, that Arab Muslim terrorists were receiving training and help from Islamic groups in Pakistan. He also accused Sharif of having failed in efforts to develop the economy, adding that this year's budget deficit would be among the largest in history.
"I cannot become a party to this recklessness and disregard to the country's future," he said in announcing his resignation. Prime minister's supporters
The crisis escalated further last month when some Sharif loyalists in the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, nominated him to become party leader in addition to remaining as prime minister.
That move stung some of his critics, bringing disputes out in the open, and triggering the first three resignations.
Since then, Sharif has tried to mend fences with the president by announcing last weekend that he would back Khan in presidential elections this November. Sharif's critics say that the differences have not been resolved, despite claims from government circles that all is well.
For some analysts, the most surprising part of the prime minister's crisis is the fact that it has erupted less than three years after he was sworn into office amid expectations for a strong government.
"Sharif now has to fight to establish his clear authority, but the most astonishing thing is that the forces which backed him initially are either not supporting him or are hostile toward him," one senior official says, adding that both the president and the armed forces initially backed Sharif.
A simmering dispute surfaced in January, when President Khan overrode Sharif's advice and appointed Gen. Abdul Waheed as the new Army chief. According to one senior aide, Sharif decided to take steps to repeal the Eighth Amendment because he was "frustrated" with General Waheed's appointment and a military build-up before that.
"If you really want to establish the authority of the parliament and respect the mandate given to the prime minister, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution will have to change," Sharif told reporters last month before appointing a parliamentary committee to recommend changes to the Constitution. Support for amendment
But Khan responded by saying that it was his duty to defend the Constitution, including the Eighth Amendment. Senior aides to Khan said privately that he felt that the clause was an essential ingredient to ensure that the president acts in crises, and can call new elections, rather than allowing the Army to step in.
"In a country where half of your lifetime since independence in 1947 has seen martial law, this measure is essential to prevent the military from stepping in during a crisis," says one senior bureaucrat who claims to support the president.
Sharif's critics insist that more resignations will appear in the next few weeks, which may make it impossible for the government to function.
Options being considered to oust Sharif include that of moving for a vote of no confidence or continuing to urge the president to dissolve the Federal Legislature.
But some Sharif supporters in the Cabinet are hopeful that he still has majority support in the 217-seat National Assembly. The same sources also argue that Sharif retains loyalty from a large segment of politicians in his home province of Punjab, the largest of the country's four provinces.
"The prime minister is very much in the saddle because of being from Punjab and loyalty from elected members," says one minister privately.
Though the two sides differ over the likely outcome, what is clear is that Sharif's image has been damaged, and doubts have emerged over his ability to remain in charge. Sharif "is now an embattled leader. Even if the battle is over and the powerful president stays on as he is likely to, Sharif will be seen as a weaker figure who tried to clip the president's wings, but failed," says one official.