ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of Pakistan's coalition government and joined the opposition Monday, a blow to chances for political stability in the nuclear-armed country.
The dramatic break came one week after Pervez Musharraf resigned the presidency under pressure and amid a growing Islamist insurgency, which threatens Pakistan's stability and that of neighboring Afghanistan.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N blamed Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party for failing to fulfill a pledge to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf fired last November.
The attempt to create a national unity government began after democratic elections in February in which no party won a majority. However, the coalition, under Zardari's leadership, was always fragile, held together in part by a commitment to ousting Musharraf. After Musharraf resigned to avoid impeachment, there was little to hold them together.
Politicians and analysts said that Islamabad looked set to continue being convulsed by political intrigue rather than focusing on the challenge from Islamic extremists in its North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area, the territory that borders Afghanistan. That will be a setback for the Bush administration, which has urged Pakistan to tackle the Taliban- and al Qaida-inspired militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, which is a base for the insurgency in Afghanistan.
"The law and order situation in NWFP and FATA will not be solved until there's a stable government in Islamabad," warned Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the ruling party in the North West Frontier Province and a member of Zardari's coalition. "Saving lives should be the first issue, then we can look at the judges."
The government won't fall for now, but the Pakistan People's Party will have to rely on the support of new partners, including a party that was close to Musharraf.
Sharif announced that he'll back his own candidate for president, to challenge Pakistan People's Party Chairman Zardari, who declared over the weekend that he'll run for the post. Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a Supreme Court judge who retired in 2002, will be Sharif's candidate.
At a news conference in Islamabad, Sharif brandished a signed agreement forged with Zardari earlier this month, which promised the restoration of the judges within 24 hours after ousting Musharraf. It was the third deadline the coalition had missed for the judges, a cause that Sharif has made the centerpiece of his politics. The deal, Sharif said, included having a nonpartisan new president until the powers of the presidency are reduced.
"We therefore feel that these repeated defaults and violations have forced us to withdraw our support from the ruling coalition and sit on the opposition benches," Sharif said.
Zardari didn't dispute Sharif's account but pleaded for him to reconsider. Zardari admitted that the sticking point was reinstating deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, an activist judge. He seemed determined not to restore Chaudhry.
As for the signed accord, Zaradri said it was "only a political agreement . . . not a part of the Quran."
Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party were rivals in the volatile 1990s, alternating in power amid scheming that saw neither party's government complete its terms in office. That culminated in the army staging its fourth coup in 1999, led by then-army chief Musharraf, who described the period as the "dreadful decade of democracy." The revived power struggle is likely to be felt first over the provincial government of the Punjab, the most populous and politically important region, which Sharif's party currently controls.
"Are we now a laughingstock for those who didn't want democracy in Pakistan? For them, it's a victory, but we're both losers," said Fauzia Wahab, a Pakistan People's Party member of parliament. "By fighting each other, you are actually defeating democracy."
Siddiqui, Sharif's candidate for president, is a respected nonparty figure who's unlikely to defeat Zardari but could attract enough support to embarrass him.
The terrorist threat in Pakistan appears to be growing. Last week, Taliban militants conducted two suicide-bomb attacks, on a hospital and an arms factory, that together claimed about 100 lives. Fighting this month between insurgents and the army in Bajaur, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area, has forced around 300,000 residents to flee. They're living in the neighboring North West Frontier Province in squalid conditions.
On Monday, gunmen in the port city of Karachi set fire to two armored personnel carriers bound for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, while a rocket attack on the home of a provincial lawmaker in Swat, part of the North West Frontier Province, killed his brother, two nephews and five guards. The government banned the main insurgent group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban, signaling that hopes of negotiating with the militants had evaporated.
"The world is losing the war. I think at the moment they (the Taliban) definitely have the upper hand," Zardari conceded in a BBC interview Sunday.
"The issue . . . is not just a bad-case scenario as far as Pakistan is concerned or as Afghanistan is concerned but it is going to be spreading further. The whole world is going to be affected by it," he said.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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