ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Two senior leaders of Pakistan’s coalition partners were due to hold talks in Dubai on Wednesday that could determine whether the month-old government holds together or starts to crack.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif rushed to Dubai on Tuesday night after aides failed to settle differences with Asif Ali Zardari over reinstating judges that President Pervez Musharraf deposed during a period of emergency rule six months ago.
Having defeated Musharraf’s allies in a parliamentary poll in February, Zardari, who succeeded his late wife Benazir Bhutto as head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), forged a post-election alliance with Sharif.
Sealing their alliance, Sharif and Zardari had vowed the PPP-led government, within a month of being sworn in, would pass a resolution in the National Assembly to bring back 60 judges.
That self-imposed deadline passed on Wednesday, with Zardari in Dubai, where he went last weekend to see his daughters.
Some officials of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N), have hinted that their ministers could quit Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s cabinet.
“If deadlock continued, then it will have very bad consequences for the democracy and the country,” Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, Chairman of PML (N) said.
Any cracks in the coalition would heighten concern that nuclear-armed Pakistan will face prolonged political instability at a time when it is facing challenges from Islamist militancy and acute economic problems.
The alliance between the PPP and PML-N marked the first time Pakistan’s two mainstream parties have come together to assert civilian rule in a country that has been run by generals like Musharraf for more than half the 61 years since its formation.
Optimism over the political outlook after the February vote had helped the Karachi stock market hit a record high on April 21, but the index has since lost over three percent as investors registered worry over the deadlock in the judges issue.
Just a week ago Sharif said rivals hoping the coalition will split will be disappointed. The PPP leadership has clearly calculated that Sharif won’t go to the brink over the judges.
“We’re optimistic of positive outcome,” Zardari’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.
Some PML-N officials were also hopeful of a compromise.
“Mr. Sharif has gone to find out some way out and it’s good for the country that some way out is found out,” Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, a Sharif loyalist, told Geo News television.
Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, wants the judges to be reinstated immediately as part of a strategy to drive Musharraf from office.
The PPP leadership wants to avoid an early confrontation with Musharraf. It also harbors reservations about some judges, notably Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court Chief Justice whose defiance of Musharraf last year galvanized the opposition.
The PPP wants to link reinstatement of the judiciary to a constitutional reform package, that will include measures to shorten the tenure of senior judges.
Under such a formula, Chaudhry could be reinstated with honor, and then immediately packed off to retirement.
Analysts say Bhutto’s party is cautious about restoring Chaudhry because last October he had admitted legal challenges to a pardon Musharraf granted Bhutto and Zardari to allow them to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution in a slew of graft cases they always maintained were politically motivated.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sanjeev Miglani)
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