Pakistani leaders' rift strains stability

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

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

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.

Zardari has long been a critic of the deposed chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom he sees as a Sharif ally, and he is in no rush to reinstate him. Moreover, the new chief justice has been much more sympathetic to his causes, in one instance sanctioning an amnesty deal that protects Zardari from charges that he embezzled millions from Pakistan during his wife's term in office.

Analysts also suggest that Zardari is not eager to pick a fight with Musharraf – and reinstating the judges would be seen as a potential first step toward the president's impeachment. It is widely believed that Musharraf called the state of emergency because the Supreme Court was about to rule his October reelection illegal.

But Musharraf's impeachment is precisely what Sharif wants. He was prime minister at the time of Musharraf's military coup in 1999, and there is the scent of revenge about his crusade. But Zardari must factor in pressure from Western countries, which still support Musharraf and see him as a reliable pro-Western influence in Islamabad. Zardari's PPP is more naturally sympathetic to the West, given its liberal, secular orientation.

"The fear is that if the chief justice is restored, there will be a challenge against [Musharraf's] election," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Professor Rais and others suggest that Zardari was in a less commanding position politically when he signed the deal, and might have done so only as a hedge. Since then, Zardari has secured the support of a pro-Musharraf party, the Muttahida Quami Movement. Another Musharraf ally, the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), has sided with Zardari on the idea of reforming the judiciary instead of restoring the old judges.

"It could end up being largely a continuation of Musharraf's eight years in power, with a new partner in the shape of the PPP," says Mahmood, the columnist.

For his part, Zardari has said judicial reform is more important than a knee-jerk restoration of the judges. This means fundamental reforms requiring legislation, which could take weeks or months, party officials say. Zardari wants to take up the issue of restoring judges only when that legislation is passed.

But critics say the talk of constitutional reform is another hedge: "If he finds there is a [public] backlash, he can come up with a constitutional amendment that is face-saving," says Mr. Rahman.

Public opinion, however, appears to have changed little since the election, when it was strongly against Musharraf and in favor of the restoration of the judges. This could put Zardari in the same position Musharraf found himself in during the final months before the election – trying to go against the will of the people.

"At the popular level, Zardari is losing a lot," says Khalid Rahman, a political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad.

Rahman and others expect renewed protests until the judges are restored, presenting Zardari with a new challenge. He does not inspire the loyalty and devotion among followers that his wife did, and many of them are wary of being seen as propping up the Musharraf regime.

"If things start to unravel," says Mahmood, "the party will unravel."

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