Sharif Withdraws From Pakistan Ruling Coalition

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Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday pulled his party out of the ruling coalition. The main party in the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party, will have to scramble to hold the government together.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Pakistan's political crises just intensified. One of the two leading parties has pulled out of the ruling coalition, and that leaves the main party scrambling to hold the government together. It's the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by the husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. And now that party stands alone. Joining us now from New Delhi is our South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves, who's covered Pakistan for many years. And Philip, first I have to ask if this development means that Pakistan's government is going to fall.

PHILIP REEVES: It probably won't fall. It's generally assumed by analysts who are following the detail of these things extremely closely that the party of Asif Ali Zadari, the lead party in the coalition that remains in government, does have enough numbers to stay in power. But it is undoubtedly weakened by the departure of Nawaz Sharif's party.

INSKEEP: You mention Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the other party, a longtime rival of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Why did he pull out now?

REEVES: Well, they've been arguing almost since the moment that this coalition was formed after February's elections - amid great euphoria, I might say. But that euphoria has dissipated. They've primarily been arguing over an issue that won't go away, and that is Nawaz Sharif's belief that the judiciary, the senior judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf when he declared an emergency at the end of last year, should be restored to office, including the chief justice of Pakistan. Asif Ali Zadari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party - that is, of course, Benazir Bhutto's party, his wife's - he is reluctant to do this. They've argued about that, and more recently, they've argued about the presidency - who should run, and what powers the president should have.

INSKEEP: Well, Philip, that raises another question. Is this development that the two major parties have completely split just confirming what people have said all along, that there really was nothing uniting Pakistan's opposition except that they opposed President Pervez Musharraf, and now that he's left, they can go on to full on arguing against each other like they always used to do?

REEVES: Yes, indeed. And Pakistanis, you know, have good memories. They remember that Nawaz Sharif's party and Zadari's party have fought for a long time. They also remember that when they were in office, they were scarcely, you know, model government. There was corruption. There was ineptitude. And they know now that these political machinations that have been dragging on for weeks and weeks in Islamabad are going on despite a worsening economy, concern about the suicide bombings being carried out by the Taliban and other Islamist militants and about the roiling conflict in the northwest of Pakistan. You get a sense when you talk to Pakistanis when you're there that they are getting more and more cynical about the ruling coalition that they were happy to see take power not so long ago.

INSKEEP: How much crazier can this situation get? Not just for Pakistanis, but for Americans who have been hoping that Pakistan's government would effectively fight against militants?

REEVES: I think the great worry now is that with a fight shaping up over the presidency, that the government, the federal government based in Islamabad, the coalition or the remnants of it will now be engaged in a lot of horse trading and, most importantly, a fight over who will become president. Asif Zadari's the current favorite. And that will absorb Islamabad, the capital, in the business of politics for more weeks. And the issues that matter, the massive power outages which are going on, the worst ever in the history of Pakistan, and most importantly, from everybody's point of view - notably the U.S.'s - the question of what to do about the militants who are active in the northwest, that those issues will go on being ineffectively tackled, even ignored. That's the worry now.

INSKEEP: Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves is reporting on the situation in Pakistan, where a major party has pulled out of the government. This is NPR News.

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