ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A new political crisis engulfed Pakistan Monday after one of the two main parties in the coalition government pulled its ministers out of the cabinet.
The move leaves the nuclear-armed Muslim state, a key ally in Washington's battle against al Qaida and the Taliban, facing a confrontation between its two big political parties. Previous face-offs resulted in repeated military interventions and culminated in a 1999 coup that brought U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf to power.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that ministers from his Pakistan Muslim League-N would leave government after six weeks in office in a dispute over how to reverse Musharraf's November decision to fire the country's independent-minded judges. Sharif insisted on restoring top judges to their former posts and firing those Musharraf named, but his senior coalition partner, the Pakistan People's Party, balked.
"Our party has decided that we will not become part of the conspiracy to strengthen dictatorship," Sharif said.
Musharraf has insisted that his ouster of some 60 top judges cannot be undone.
Sharif said he'd continue to support the government "on an issue-by-issue basis" for now, but analysts said the split could become permanent if his party doesn't quickly rejoin the government.
The People's Party headed by Arif Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said that except for the finance portfolio, it would leave the ministries vacant "for a short time".
The People's Party may have to take new groups into the coalition in order to maintain its parliamentary majority, and its only choices would be parties allied with Musharraf, a move that wouldn't sit well with Zardari's constituents.
However, Sharif's stand leaves him vulnerable, too. His party runs the government of his native Punjab province, but he doesn't have an outright majority in the provincial parliament and relies on People's Party support.
If the separation of the parties hardens, the People's Party could team up with Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q to oust Sharif from the government of the Punjab, Pakistan's most highly populated and politically important region.
"Punjab is the real base of power in Pakistan," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a politics professor at the Lahore School of Management Sciences. "This will get bloody and nasty."
"This is a huge miscalculation by Nawaz Sharif," said Sehgal. "He can forget about impeachment (of Musharraf). Now he's got to play it cool in the Punjab just to survive."
Sharif's party alleges that Musharraf has pressured Zardari's People's Party to relent on the judges issue. Musharraf granted Zardari and his late wife legal amnesty in corruption cases, a behind-the-scenes deal apparently brokered by Washington.
Frequent meetings by top U.S. officials with the leaders of the tottering coalition have now left an impression that the Bush administration, acting on Musharraf's behalf, has tried to persuade Zardari to oppose reinstating the judges.
Pakistani lawyers who've campaigned to have the chief justice and other judges reinstated are now set to revive their protest movement, having given up on the new government's pledge to restore the judiciary.
Sharif had campaigned on a promise to restore the judges and throw out Musharraf, but he misjudged the People's Party, which was much more guarded on both issues. The two parties declared jointly in March that they'd restore the judges through a simple parliamentary resolution. Now the PPP says that complex legislation is needed and that the judges Musharraf installed in November must be retained.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)