ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Leaders of Pakistan’s ruling coalition held inconclusive talks on Monday to finalize strategy for the restoration of judges dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf when he imposed emergency rule last year.
The reinstatement of the judges, including the former Supreme court chief justice, would be a major challenge to Musharraf, a staunch U.S. ally who has been isolated since his allies were defeated in February parliamentary elections.
The restoration of the judges seen as hostile to Musharraf’s maneuvers to stay in power was the main element of a coalition pact between the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower and political successor, agreed to restore about 60 judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, through a parliamentary resolution within 30 days of the formation of their coalition. That deadline will pass by the end of April.
If restored, some of the judges are expected to take up challenges to Musharraf’s October re-election by outgoing assembly members, which his critics say was unconstitutional.
Zardari and Sharif met for more than three hours and discussed a draft resolution to be put to the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house, now dominated by Musharraf’s opponents, said Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif’s party.
But they had yet to reach a final agreement, he said.
“The talks were inconclusive and will be resumed tomorrow,” Farooq told reporters.
“No party can afford the failure of the talks. No party in the coalition can afford to back out from the commitment it made in the Murree Declaration,” he said, referring to the coalition pact agreed in the hill town of Murree in March.
Sharif was the prime minister Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup and is determined to force him from power. The PPP, however, has been more circumspect, apparently reluctant to force a potentially destabilizing confrontation with Musharraf.
Analysts say the PPP is also cautious about restoring judges who could also take up challenges to an ordinance Musharraf introduced in October wiping out corruption cases against Bhutto, Zardari and allied politicians.
There have been reports of strains between the coalition partners over the issue, although party officials dismissed that.
The PPP emerged as the largest party in the February 18 election, followed by Sharif’s party, and their victory raised speculation they might try to impeach Musharraf.
However, Zardari said in a recent interview with the BBC the coalition was short of a two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for an impeachment.
But the dismissed judges, if restored, could rule Musharraf’s re-election unconstitutional and force him from power that way.
Musharraf imposed emergency rule and fired the judges to pre-empt some of them ruling against his re-election by outgoing legislators while he was still army chief.
He then packed the courts with pliant judges, secured a ruling in favor of his re-election and quit the army to become a civilian president.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson