One of the two main parties in Pakistan's ruling coalition declared Monday that it would quit the government in a dispute over when and how to reinstate judges fired by President Pervez Musharraf during a crackdown late last year.
The announcement by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N faction, raises the prospect of a messy splintering of the alliance that soundly defeated the party of the U.S.-backed Musharraf at the polls nearly three months ago.
Sharif said his party, despite relinquishing its Cabinet posts today, would continue to support the coalition for the time being, and negotiations between the two parties were expected to continue. But the turn of events suggested it would be difficult for them to stay together in the longer term and forge a common policy on pressing matters such as confronting Islamic militants.
The biggest share of votes in February's parliamentary elections was won by the Pakistan People's Party, led by Benazir Bhutto until her assassination Dec. 27. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, stepped in as leader after her death, with the couple's college-student son, Bilawal, as co-chairman.
The party of Sharif, who, like Bhutto, spent years in exile under Musharraf, took the second-largest share, and the two groups agreed to join forces despite some major philosophical differences. Most of their affinity appeared based on a mutual distaste for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has seen his popularity plunge over the last year.
Musharraf fired the popular chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and about 60 other judges in November, when the president also declared a state of emergency. The dismissals fed widespread protests and hurt the ruling party at the polls.
The dispute over the reinstatement of judges points up the larger question of whether Musharraf should be allowed to continue to serve as a figurehead president or be forced out. Sharif has repeatedly demanded his ouster, while Zardari has signaled willingness to work with the president, as long as his powers are largely ceremonial.
At the time Musharraf declared emergency rule, Chaudhry's Supreme Court had appeared poised to invalidate his reelection by the outgoing parliament last year. If reinstated, the chief justice could once again take up legal challenges to Musharraf's new five-year term.
Sharif and Zardari have been quarreling, though not openly, for weeks now about the judges. The new government pledged when it took office six weeks ago that the judges would be restored by an act of parliament within a month. But two deadlines for a vote by lawmakers have already passed, the latest of them Monday.
Over the last weeks, the rift in the coalition has become more and more apparent.
Zardari, who has had a number of court cases against him dismissed by the new judges appointed by Musharraf, wanted a reinstatement of Chaudhry and others to come as part of a larger package of constitutional reforms that might also limit the judiciary's power and trim the term of the chief justice.
Sharif demanded an unconditional reinstatement, and the firing of any jurists appointed by Musharraf during the state of emergency. He has also repeatedly declared that he expects the judges' return to lead to Musharraf's being forced from office -- a step that the Bush administration, which views Musharraf as a key ally in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, has counseled against.
At the same time, the squabbling coalition partners realize that Musharraf has the most to gain by this split and have tried to publicly paper over their differences.
"We will not take any step that will benefit Musharraf's dictatorship," Sharif said at a news conference Monday in the capital, Islamabad. Any sign that an elected civilian government might prove unable to maintain order unnerves many Pakistanis, mindful of past instances when the army stepped in to seize power. Pakistan has spent more than half of its six-decade history under military leadership.