A day after their unified effort ousted President Pervez Musharraf, the two major parties in the governing coalition fell into disarray Tuesday when they failed to agree on the restoration of the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The deterioration became evident when Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, walked out of a meeting and headed home to Lahore, a four-hour drive.
Party members said Sharif had delivered an ultimatum to the senior coalition party, the Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, to consent to the return of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, within 72 hours, or Sharif's party would leave the government. Chaudhry was among some 60 judges suspended by Musharraf last year.
Even by the standards of Pakistan's volatile political scene, the public discord was surprising, politicians said, a sign that opposition to Musharraf may have been the strongest thread tying them together.
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The departure of Sharif's party would greatly weaken the government but would not necessarily bring new elections. Still, the situation boded ill for stability, with Pakistan facing a sharply declining economy and an emboldened Taliban insurgency that is fast moving past sanctuaries in the tribal region into other parts of the country.
In an attack claimed by the Taliban within the tribal region Tuesday, a suicide bomber ripped into the emergency room of the district hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, a town near Waziristan, killing 25 and injuring 30, said the police inspector general in the North-West Frontier province, Malik Naveed Khan.
Zardari and Sharif have disagreed over Chaudhry's reinstatement ever since they became coalition partners.
Sharif based his election campaign on the reinstatement of some 60 judges fired by Musharraf. A June poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found 83 percent of Pakistanis wanted the Supreme Court justices reinstated.
But Zardari has made clear he does not want Chaudhry back.
The basis of Zardari's opposition to Chaudhry rests with a fear that he might undo an amnesty agreement that absolved Zardari of corruption charges, lawyers said. The amnesty was part of a package arranged by Musharraf when Zardari returned to Pakistan after his wife, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last year.