Nawaz Sharif Goes, Zardari Stays, Pakistan Suffers

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who led the second biggest party in Pakistan's ruling coalition, withdrew his support from the government today, charging his main political partner, Asif Ali Zardari, with having broken a string of promises. "These repeated defaults and violations have forced us to withdraw," Sharif announced at a press conference.

The breakup comes only a week after Sharif and Zardari's combined efforts achieved their one clear success: forcing the resignation of Pakistan's president and longtime military strongman Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, getting rid of Musharraf was about the only thing that had kept their government together since it was formed in April.

The coalition led by Zardari, who is the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) co-chairman and Benazir Bhutto's widower, was already feeble. And Sharif's pullout leaves it less able than ever to confront Pakistan's critical problems: inflation, power shortages, a battered stock market, an anemic currency, investor skepticism and an increasingly belligerent Islamist insurgency that is linked with Al Qaeda. But by bringing in the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement, Zardari should be able to muster just enough support to keep his handpicked prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in power. "Zardari will have a very narrow margin," says one Western diplomat based in Islamabad. "But he should be able to swing it."

Zardari and Sharif had problems from the start, especially over the thorny issue of restoring 60 judges to their offices, including the Supreme Court's activist Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry.

Sharif was clearly bent on revenge against Musharraf, who had ousted Sharif as prime minister in a bloodless 1999 military coup, then put him on trial for treason and exiled him a year later. Sharif wanted Chaudhry restored to the bench as the quickest way to topple Musharraf. He and most Pakistanis reckoned that Chaudhry, whom Musharraf sacked twice last year, would invalidate as unconstitutional Musharraf's re-election as president last October.

But Zardari dragged his feet on the judges issue, fearing that Chaudhry would strike down as unconstitutional the Musharraf-granted amnesty decree, which had expunged a slew of corruption charges against Zardari, his late wife and several other leading PPP figures. So with the crucial judges issue hanging fire, Zardari and Sharif decided to impeach Musharraf.

To keep Sharif on board during that process, Zardari made a series of promises to the former prime minister, saying that once Musharraf was out of the way, the judges' restoration would follow immediately. Most recently, in early August, Zardari is said to have taken an oath on the Qur'an that the judges would be back on the bench within 24 hours of Musharraf's resignation. Zardari's aides deny that he took any such oath. But Zardari, it seems, had no intention of keeping his word on the judges issue in any case, thus bringing the coalition to the breaking point.

This past weekend Zardari continued to wax cool on the judges, telling the BBC that any agreements he may have made: "are not holy like the Qur'an," and that "there can be a rethink of anything." To make matters worse, on Saturday the PPP nominated Zardari as its candidate to stand in the indirect presidential election to be held Sept. 6, a move that is supported by the PPP's other coaliton partners.

Sharif on the other hand had been pushing hard for neutral figure to replace Musharraf, someone who would serve as a figurehead president, stripped of the draconian powers Musharraf had accumulated. Clearly Sharif is not keen on having Zardari in the presidency that wields the power to dissolve the National Assembly and to appoint the three military service chiefs. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Zardari said he saw presidency as a more "ceremonial" post. But few Pakistanis believe that if he gets the job he will strip the position of its many perquisites and powers.

Clearly the two men and their parties could not cohabitate together any longer. The most immediate casualty will be the country's already wobbly economic and political stability. "It's a very bad sign," says political scientist and columnist Hasan Askari Rizvi of Sharif's decision. "Pakistan and its democratic forces will be weakened if these two major political forces spend all their energy fighting against each other."

"I'm afraid we will have uncertainty continuing for an indefinite period of time," he adds. "Everyone's disappointed." Indeed, Pakistan may start seeing more public protests by the lawyers' movement next month, demanding Chaudhry's immediate reinstatement. The lawyers spearheaded the public protests in support of Chaudhry last year that helped to galvanize the broad-based anti-Musharraf movement.

Sharif's walking away from the coalition is expected to start a major political realignment among smaller parties. Sharif can also increase his popularity by having his own party snipe at the government from opposition benches. But that strong opposition could well undercut the flagging anti-extremist fight.

Zardari is said to support U.S. counterterror goals in Pakistan, by and large. "It is our country, and we will defend it," he told the BBC this past weekend. But, he added: "I think at the moment they [the Taliban] definitely have the upper hand."

Sharif, by contrast, is skeptical of Washington's aims in the war against Islamic militants and will doubtlessly be critical of any government moves to increase military actions along the frontier where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have established safe havens and bases for launching attacks into neighboring Afghanistan.

With the new coalition looking even more unstable than the last, the road ahead appears to be perilous indeed, and not only for Pakistan.