The rift in Pakistan’s coalition government widened yesterday after the appointment of a disputed figure to a key post in the administration drew protests from former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif pulled his party’s ministers from the Cabinet earlier this week after the government failed to meet a pledge to restore judges ousted under Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Asif Ali Zardari, who leads the largest party in the coalition, hopes to persuade Sharif to return soon and stabilize an administration facing huge economic problems as well as pressure from the West to curb Islamic militancy.
But a spokesman for Sharif said yesterday that the appointment of the new governor of Punjab Province had only embittered relations within the coalition.
“We should have been taken into confidence” before the decision on the governorship, spokesman Sadiqul Farooq said. “If further steps are taken unilaterally like this, then of course the coalition gets weaker.”
The government took office six weeks ago on a platform of strong opposition to former army strongman Musharraf, whose political allies were routed in February elections.
But its failure to agree on how to restore Supreme Court judges purged by Musharraf in November to halt legal challenges to his continuing in office has cast the country into political uncertainty.
Sharif appears to view the judges as a tool to assail Musharraf, who ousted his government in a 1999 coup.
Zardari, whose assassinated wife, the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, fought bitterly for power with Sharif in the 1990s, has been more cautious.
He insists that laws must be changed to allow the judges to return and has shied away from openly confronting Musharraf, a stalwart US ally who retains the power to dissolve parliament.
The new governor of Punjab is Salman Taseer, a longtime member of Zardari’s Pakistan People’s party who is also a business and media tycoon.
Taseer was allegedly arrested and beaten by police during Sharif’s first government in the early 1990s after publishing details of alleged corruption in the administration.
Farooq accused Taseer of using his newspapers in the past for “character assassination” against Sharif and said his party was worried that Taseer could try to obstruct the provincial government.
Sharif’s party won most of the seats in Punjab, the country’s biggest and richest province, and Sharif’s brother is expected to take over as its chief minister next month.
Governors perform mainly ceremonial duties but also have the power to dissolve the provincial assembly in an emergency. Zardari’s party was unapologetic.
Spokesman Farhatullah Babar said governors were appointed by the president in consultation with the prime minister, who hails from Zardari’s party.
Babar said his party had “informed” Sharif’s party about the move on Wednesday.
Western officials warn that fresh political turmoil could weaken Pakistan’s efforts against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants operating from Pakistani territory along the Afghan border.
The new government is trying to negotiate peace agreements along the frontier that Washington worries will simply allow militants to focus on mounting attacks in Afghanistan.
Militants have vowed to continue the talks, despite an apparent US missile strike on a border village on Wednesday. The identity of the around one dozen people killed remains unclear.