ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan’s new leaders planned last-gasp talks Wednesday on a dispute about how to reinstate judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf that threatens their month-old government.
The U.S.-backed Musharraf purged the Supreme Court last year to stop legal challenges to his re-election. His allies were routed in February elections by parties that formed a new ruling coalition and promised to reinstate the judges by the end of April.
But as the midnight Wednesday deadline approached they remained at odds over how to do it, fueling speculation that an alliance that is revising Pakistan’s role in the U.S.-led war on terror could crumble and grant a reprieve to the embattled president.
Asif Ali Zardari, the widower and political successor of assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were to meet Wednesday in Dubai after their party lieutenants failed to resolve the issue in marathon talks.
Sharif insisted he “wholeheartedly” wanted to keep the coalition intact. But he said his accord with Zardari on restoring the judges must be implemented “in letter and spirit” to protect Pakistan’s return to democracy.
Sharif also lashed out at Musharraf, his archenemy who ousted his government in a 1999 coup. Musharraf retired as army chief in November, but only after declaring emergency rule and removing the judges.
The government has a popular mandate to “remove the man who is responsible for harming the country” by sacking the judges and undermining Parliament, Sharif told reporters late Tuesday before boarding a flight from Lahore.
Sharif’s party has threatened to pull its ministers from the federal Cabinet if the judges issue drags on, but says it will remain part of the coalition.
Sadiqul Farooq, a senior party official, said it could consider an extension of the April 30 deadline if Zardari provided “reasonable justification.”
Zardari insists he also wants to reinstate the judges, but wants to link their return to reforms that could narrow the powers of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and prevent judges from getting involved in politics.
Zardari has accused Chaudhry and other judges of “playing politics” and failing to deliver justice to him during the years he spent in jail on unproven corruption charges.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman, a party colleague of Zardari, said Tuesday that reinstating the judges required legislation that “needs some time.” “I don’t think in this situation the coalition is threatened,” she said.
Musharraf removed Chaudhry just as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the legality of his election in October to a new five-year presidential term. Musharraf accused the chief justice of corruption and conspiring against him and his plans to guide Pakistan back to democracy.
Chaudhry had shown an unusual degree of independence, blocking government privatization deals and investigating complaints that its spy agencies were holding opposition activists secretly under the cover of fighting international terrorism.
Some analysts predict Musharraf might have to quit if Chaudhry is restored and the court revisits the president’s disputed re-election.
If the judges do not return with full powers, lawyers who led yearlong protests for judicial independence will mount “serious agitation” against the new rulers, said Wajihuddin Ahmad, a former judge at the forefront of their movement.
Some analysts argue that Zardari and Sharif are compelled to find a compromise. Both have suffered under Musharraf and have staked out plans to trim his powers and entrench civilian rule in a country dominated for most of its 60-year history by the military.
Yet Zardari’s liberal party has repeatedly hinted it could govern without Sharif, a traditional archrival of Bhutto with links to religious conservatives.
On Wednesday, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party agreed to share power in the southern province of Sindh with a Karachi-based party that backed the previous pro-Musharraf government. Still, officials said there were no plans for it to join the federal coalition.