Ministers from the party of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif submitted their resignations from Pakistan's Cabinet yesterday, shaking the fragile coalition government that took power just six weeks ago.
Sharif announced on Monday that he was pulling his ministers from the government over its failure to meet a promise to reinstate judges ousted by archrival President Pervez Musharraf.
But Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani did not immediately accept the nine resignations yesterday. Gilani said he first wanted to consult his party's leader, Asif Ali Zardari, according to one of the nine, Education Minister Ahsan Iqbal.
A withdrawal of Sharif's party raises the prospect of the fledgling government collapsing, casting Pakistan into political turmoil just as it faces mounting economic woes and tries to maintain a fragile truce with Islamic militants along the Afghan border.
Sharif said his party would remain part of the ruling coalition, which is led by the party of Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Zardari's party expressed "respect" for the decision and said the parties remained close.
But a spokesman for Sharif sharpened the tone yesterday, accusing members of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of "serving the interests" of Musharraf by blocking the judges' restoration.
"Such loyalists of Musharraf are to be blamed for our decision to quit the Cabinet," Sadiqul Farooq said.
Farooq said that Zardari aides had secret contacts with Musharraf.
Zardari party spokesman Farhatullah Babar denied there had been any back-channel contact with Musharraf and insisted his party remained committed to restoring the judges.
He said Zardari was to return to Pakistan from overseas late yesterday, meet party leaders and hold talks with Sharif at a later date.
Musharraf imposed emergency rule and purged the Supreme Court in November last year to forestall a ruling on his eligibility for office.
The coalition which came to power after routing Musharraf's supporters in February parliamentary elections vowed to reverse his crackdown. But the two leading parties have failed to agree just how to reinstate the judges despite weeks of wrangling.
Sharif insists a parliamentary resolution and a simple order from the government would suffice to bring back the justices.
But Zardari's party argues that the law must be changed first to accommodate those judges installed by Musharraf after the purge ??an attempt to make sure they do not resist the change. It is also seeking a package of judicial reforms to prevent the judges from getting involved in politics.
A permanent split in the coalition would boost Musharraf, a former army strongman who has taken a back seat since the new government took power in late March.
Opposition parties aligned with the president have signaled their readiness to join a new coalition with the PPP if its alliance with Sharif breaks down completely.
But Sharif said his party would not join the opposition "for the time being."
"We will not take any step which will benefit Musharraf's dictatorship," he said.