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Split in Pakistani coalition dashes hopes of many

ISLAMABAD, May 13 (Reuters) - Pakistanis are shocked by the split of a six-week-old coalition government on which they had pinned hopes for stability and change, and fear another bout of political polarisation and instability.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads the second biggest party in the coalition, announced on Monday his members, were quitting the cabinet after failing to reach agreement with the party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on the restoration of judges fired by President Pervez Musharraf.

The two parties defeated former army chief Musharraf’s allies in a February election and their alliance had raised hopes for a stable civilian government in a country ruled by generals for more than half its history since its independence in 1947.

“I voted in the hope that something good will happen but I don’t see that,” said Nighat Anis, a teacher at a school on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad. “I’m very upset, really very upset. Sometimes I think I should leave the country.”

The nine members of Sharif’s party in the government, including Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, were due to hand in their resignations on Tuesday afternoon.

The fate of the judges has monopolised the attention of the coalition parters since the election, to the cost, critics say, of action on surging inflation, a slumping currency and stocks and the fight against militancy.

The rupee PKR=PK has fallen more than 10 percent this year as the brewing political crisis has undermined a currency under pressure from a surging oil import bill and fiscal deficit.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan’s Western allies in the campaign against terrorism dread more instability in a country plagued by turbulence since March last year when Musharraf tried to dismiss the country’s top judge, touching off protests.

As part of his efforts to secure another term as president, Musharraf fired about 60 judges seen as hostile to him in November, after he imposed a brief state of emergency.

“POLITICS OF VENDETTA”

Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted when he seized power in 1999, had made the restoration of the judges his main condition for joining a coalition with Bhutto’s party, led by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, since her assassination in December.

But the restoration of the judges is likely to spark a showdown with Musharraf and the two leaders failed to agree on how it should be done.

While pulling his party out of the coalition after a deadline for the return of the judges passed, Sharif promised not to destabilise it and to support it on an issue-by-issue basis.

Despite that, the split has stoked fears of turmoil.

“Pakistan could ... be going back to a polarisation it has known in the past,” the Daily Times said in an editorial. “We could be entering another round of politics of vendetta.

A law student in Karachi, Zain Korai, said the whole country was depressed: “For the first time in our history we felt that change for the better was happening in politics. But I’m sorry to say, nothing has changed.”

Zardari has said he would not appoint new minsters to the portfolios vacated by Sharif’s party, except for the finance post, and would try to persuade Sharif back into the fold.

The split in the coalition, analysts say, would be welcomed by U.S. ally Musharraf who has been isolated since his allies were defeated in the February polls.

It would also reinforce a perception that Zardari was in league with the unpopular Musharraf, analysts say.

Like Musharraf, Zardari is reluctant to see the return of some of the purged judges, particularly former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who accepted legal challenges to an amnesty Musharraf granted Zardari, Bhutto and others against graft cases. (Additional reporting by Aftab Borka; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani) (For a Reuters blog about Pakistan please see blogs.reuters.com/pakistan)

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