Pakistan's long-troubled ruling coalition collapsed Monday amid bitter arguments over who should be the country's next president and whether and how to reinstate dozens of senior judges fired last year.
The disintegration of the coalition, which had been widely anticipated for some time, does not necessarily mean the government will collapse -- at least not immediately. The Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, which has the most parliamentary seats, can probably cobble together an alliance with smaller partners.
Still, the coalition's downfall bodes ill for government efforts to confront an economy in near-meltdown and an Islamic insurgency that has been growing in strength and audacity.
While the coalition was falling apart, the government made at least a symbolic effort to contain some of the militants who have been carrying out larger and bolder attacks in recent weeks. Rehman Malik, the country's top civilian law-enforcement official, announced a ban on Pakistan's Taliban movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban, led by militant commander Baitullah Mahsud.
The government move, though, is likely to have little practical effect. It means the group cannot legally conduct fundraising, but virtually all of its money is thought to flow through illegal channels and various front groups.
Still, the ban marks a change in the government's stance toward Mahsud. It had previously tried to negotiate peace deals with him, even though he is blamed for orchestrating scores of suicide bombings and other attacks, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- an accusation he denies.
Malik, the interior minister, declared that government forces would continue to attack militant sanctuaries in the Bajaur tribal agency, near the Afghan border, where fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee. In another trouble spot, the Swat valley in northwestern Pakistan, insurgents killed at least eight people Monday when they fired a rocket into a provincial lawmaker's home.
The new display of disarray within the government came just a week after President Pervez Musharraf stepped down under threat of impeachment proceedings. Without the common cause of driving him from power, the two main parties -- the PPP and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N -- found little grounds for unity.
Sharif announced the walkout after the PPP, led by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, refused to meet a Monday deadline to seal a deal on reinstatement of judges fired by Musharraf in November during a state of emergency, which resembles martial law.
"Repeated defaults and violations have forced us to withdraw our support from the ruling coalition," Sharif declared at a news conference in Islamabad, the capital.
Zardari had agreed in principle to restore the judiciary, including fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. But Zardari is thought to fear the revival of corruption charges against him if the judges return to the bench.
Sharif said his party, the second-biggest vote-getter in February elections, would sit in opposition, and he insisted that he was not trying to stage an "overthrow" of the government. However, the former prime minister and his party have been gaining popular support for their fierce defense of the fired jurists, and many analysts believe that if another general election were held now, they would easily win.
The PPP turned its attention to wooing small parties and independents into the coalition fold. The reformulated alliance will face its first major test Sept. 6, when lawmakers are to elect a new president. Zardari is seeking the post.
Sharif's party is also fielding a presidential candidate, former Chief Justice Saeed Uzzaman Siddiqui. But given the current configuration of parliament, his chances of victory are considered slim.
Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.