NYT : Sharif’s Party Leaves Cabinet in Pakistan

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sharif’s Party Leaves Cabinet in Pakistan

By JANE PERLEZ | May 13, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In an early sign of instability in the new government in Pakistan, the junior partner in the coalition said Monday that it was withdrawing from the cabinet over the failure to reinstate the Supreme Court judges dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf.

The move by the Pakistan Muslim League-N to vacate its nine posts in the 24-member cabinet, including the all important finance ministry, was a step short of leaving the coalition and the collapse of the government altogether. But it was a clear indication of just how fragile the coalition remained.

The leader of the party, Nawaz Sharif, said he was standing firm on a pledge made by the coalition in March to bring back 57 judges, including the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, after their dismissal under emergency rule last November.

In protracted negotiations that collapsed Sunday, the senior member of the coalition, the Pakistan Peoples Party led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, insisted that judges appointed during the emergency by President Musharraf as loyalists to him should also be retained.

“Complications kept on being created,” Mr. Sharif told the news conference. “We made a promise to the nation, we couldn’t fulfill it, so we are quitting the cabinet.”

Mr. Sharif said the party would not join the opposition, and would continue to work with its partner on an issue by issue basis. But how long the marriage of the two parties could last was a matter of high conjecture Monday. “Several months,” said Ashtar Ausaf Ali, a senior legal adviser to Mr. Sharif.

One of Mr. Sharif’s confidants, Nisar Ali Khan, who is among the ministers who will withdraw from the cabinet, described relations between the two parties as “cool.”

Explaining his decision, Mr. Sharif said he refused to recognize the judges appointed by Mr. Musharraf — and who now sit on the Supreme Court — because he considered their appointments during the emergency rule illegal.

Mr. Sharif said he would immediately file nominating papers to stand for parliament in a by-election in June. From parliament Mr. Sharif, who was twice prime minister in the 1990s, would have the potential to become a much stronger voice in the escalating contest with Mr. Zardari, who has declared he will stay out of the legislature.

In a statement after Mr. Sharif’s news conference, the Pakistan Peoples Party said it had “no differences” with its coalition partner over the restoration of the judiciary. “The only point of disagreement is the method of restoration,” said Sherry Rehman, Central Information Secretary of the party.

Ms. Rehman said the Peoples’ Party would still try to resolve the issue “amicably” and that the cabinet posts left open by the Pakistan Muslim League-N would not be filled.

The essence of the feud over the judges revolved around the future of Mr. Musharraf, regarded by the Bush administration as a strong ally in the campaign on terror. Mr. Musharraf is no longer head of the army but remains as president.

If Mr. Chaudhry was reinstated, the Supreme Court would almost certainly rule the Nov. 3 emergency decree illegal. That in turn would re-open the legality of the second five-year presidential term granted to Mr. Musharraf by Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, who replaced Mr. Chaudhry, and who is regarded in the Pakistani legal fraternity as being friendly toward Mr. Zardari.

During his election campaign, Mr. Sharif stressed the importance of restoring the chief justice, Mr. Chaudhry, a maverick judge whose rulings infuriated Mr. Musharraf. The Supreme Court was considering the legality of Mr. Musharraf’s second five-year term as president and seemed poised to rule against him, when the president abruptly dismissed the judges in November.

Mr. Chaudhry, a country lawyer from the remote province of Baluchistan, upset the Musharraf regime, and the United States, by demanding that the secret services and police explain the whereabouts of hundreds of Pakistanis missing in secret detentions.

Mr. Ali, the legal adviser to Mr. Sharif, said that the breakdown over the judges came in part because the Bush administration was concerned that Mr. Musharraf be protected, for the time being at least, and not be made vulnerable to rulings by Mr. Chaudhry.

Mr. Ali said there was a perception that that Mr. Zardari had given an understanding to the Bush administration that Mr. Musharraf be granted a “safe exit,” six to nine months from now, a period which coincides with the end of Mr. Bush’s term. “It’s the perception that the Americans fear if the judiciary is restored, Musharraf will lose face,” Mr. Ali said.

The Pakistani papers have featured editorials and articles asserting that the United States was meddling in the coalition crisis.

“Any ambassador would make a courtesy call to Asif Zardari,” said Athar Minallah, a leader of the lawyers’ movement that has campaigned on behalf of the fired judges. “The American ambassador has made up to a dozen, including one the day after the coalition announced on March 9 they would restore the judges within 30 days.”

Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, visited London at the weekend to talk to Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari who were holding last-ditch negotiations there on the judges. The American embassy in Islamabad issued a statement afterwards saying that Mr. Boucher’s visit was part of his “regular interactions” with Pakistan’s political leaders.

In question now, is the future of the lawyers’ movement that made Mr. Chaudhry a popular public figure last year by campaigning for him at huge rallies around the country.

But the public, suddenly burdened with an economic crisis of wheat shortages, and high energy prices, is starting to express disenchantment with the new government for concentrating on the judges at the expense of basic bread and butter issues.

The leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, declared at a protest march at the parliament Monday that “we’re continuing the fight until all the judges are back.”

But there are doubts about how much excitement he will be able to stir, especially since he plans to run for a parliamentary seat on Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party ticket, a party that is now seen as opposed to reinstating Mr. Chaudhry and his fellow judges in the way that was anticipated.