AFTER a four-month power struggle, Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on Sunday dissolved the country's parliament and sacked the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The president's seizure of power forced out a leader who had vowed to democratize a country ruled by generals for more than half of the 46 years since independence and who had taken steps to liberalize Pakistan's troubled economy.
President Khan's action raises questions over the future of democracy in a country long considered an ally of the United States, although US-Pakistani ties have been complicated by Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons.
Khan cited recent resignations by at least six Cabinet ministers; rising economic problems such as a growing budget deficit, worsening relations between the federal and provincial governments; and alleged corruption as reasons for his action. Mr. Sharif was replaced by a little-known feudal landlord from the province of Punjab, Balkh Sher Mazari, as interim prime minister until elections are held July 14.
Sharif says he will begin a protest against the president on Wednesday with a train journey from the capital, Islamabad, to his home town, Lahore. He is expected to seek public support in his home province of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. It is not yet clear whether that support will help him return to power.
Sharif's dismissal came hours after the president met with opposition leader and ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom he fired on similar charges of corruption and misrule just 32 months ago, to discuss power sharing. One of the ministers named by Mr. Mazari was rumored to be a close Bhutto aide. It was only the second time Ms. Bhutto had met with Khan since her ouster. "We decided we would come out in support of this chance to have fresh elections," Bhutto told reporters. Her Pakistan People's Party w ill take part in the July elections.
The latest showdown came after Sharif challenged a 1985 constitutional amendment giving the president authority to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament. But Sharif's initiative only divided politicians, including those within his own party, and led to the resignations of three of Sharif's Cabinet ministers, including Environment Minister Anwar Saifullah Khan, the president's son-in-law.
Sharif's defiance made him the third prime minister to be sacked in five years. Premier Mohammad Khan Junejo was removed in 1988 and Bhutto was removed in 1990.
Sharif was Pakistan's first prime minister to emerge from a business background rather than from the feudal elite. Shortly after his election in November 1990, he embarked on a course of economic reform with a passionate conviction that this would not only reverse most of this country's problems but also strengthen his own credentials.
"Now is the time to really strengthen democracy, not just the institution of the prime minister, but also all democratic institutions in the country," Sharif said during one of his first interviews as premier.
Sharif began with an initiative to bring about large-scale privatization of poorly run state factories where the average annual profit ranged from 1.5 to 2 percent. Businesses were allowed to set up new industrial projects without going through complicated bureaucratic processes.
In addition, plans were finalized to improve the inefficient infrastructure, through plans such as giving contracts for a large network of motorways to serve as arteries connecting new industrial estates.
Sharif was so confident his plans would succeed that he said during an interview last year, "We will have visible achievements which will speak for themselves."
While many business leaders hailed his economic plans, economic troubles, as well as political tensions, eventually contributed to Sharif's downfall. Compared with earlier expectations of success in the economy, this year's budget deficit is expected to rise as high as 100 billion rupees ($3.85 billion), up from an earlier target of 65 billion rupees.
In addition to economic problems, Sharif began to face dissent from members of his own ruling alliance last year, which isolated his party, the Pakistan Muslim League. Members were split between those who wanted to introduce Islamic religious law and those cautious that the country could become isolated in international affairs.
The fact that no government has been allowed to complete its term since the lifting of martial law in 1985 is a track record increasingly difficult to defend.
Assessing Pakistan's future, a senior Western diplomat said Pakistan has to "finally show to the world that democracy is progressing so that [it doesn't] come under criticism on this issue. So far, [it has] not been able to present an absolutely convincing case."