Pakistani leaders were up against a key deadline Wednesday in efforts to restore judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf and end a spat that has strained their month-old coalition government.
The U.S.-backed president purged the country's Supreme Court last year to stop legal challenges to his continuation in office. Parties that routed Musharraf's allies in February elections and formed the new coalition government have promised to reinstate the judges by the end of April.
But as the midnight deadline approached Wednesday, they remained at odds over how to fulfill their promise, fueling speculation that an alliance that is revising Pakistan's role in the U.S.-led war on terror could crumble and grant a reprieve to the embattled president.
A spokesman for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he met Wednesday afternoon in Dubai with Asif Ali Zardari, the widower and political successor of assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto. The meeting comes after their party lieutenants failed to resolve the issue in marathon talks.
Zardari insists he wants to reinstate the judges, but wants to link their return with reforms that could narrow the powers of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and prevent judges from getting involved in politics.
On his way to the meeting, Sharif said the two parties must honor a pledge to use a parliamentary resolution to restore the judiciary and urged Zardari to "de-link" the resolution from proposed reforms.
"The resolution is a simple resolution ... we will be very happy to look at the constitutional package whenever it comes to us," Sharif told reporters.
'Some time' needed
Sharif's party has threatened to pull its ministers from the federal Cabinet if the judges issue drags on, but insists it will remain part of the coalition.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman, a party colleague of Zardari, said Tuesday that reinstating the judges required legislation that "needs some time."
"I don't think in this situation the coalition is threatened," she said.
Sadiqul Farooq, a senior official in Sharif's party, said it could consider an extension of the April 30 deadline if Zardari provided "reasonable justification."
Sharif said his accord with Zardari on restoring the judges must be implemented "in letter and spirit" to protect Pakistan's return to democracy.
He also lashed out at Musharraf, who ousted the former prime minister's government in a 1999 coup. Musharraf retired as army chief in November, but only after declaring emergency rule and removing the judges.
The government had a popular mandate to "remove the man who is responsible for harming the country" by sacking the judges and undermining parliament, Sharif said.
"Such a man should not be pardoned," he told reporters late Tuesday before boarding a flight from Lahore.
Musharraf removed Chaudhry just as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the legality of his election in October for a new five-year presidential term. Musharraf accused the judge of corruption and conspiring against him and his plans to guide Pakistan back to democracy.
Chaudhry had shown an unusual degree of independence, blocking government privatization deals and investigating complaints that its spy agencies were holding opposition activists incognito under the cover of fighting international terrorism.
Musharraf in danger?
Some analysts predict Musharraf might have to quit if Chaudhry is restored and the court revisits the president's disputed re-election.
If the judges don't return with full powers, lawyers who led yearlong protests for judicial independence will mount "serious agitation" against the new rulers, said Wajihuddin Ahmad, a former judge at the forefront of their movement.
Some analysts argue that Zardari and Sharif are compelled to find a compromise. Both have suffered under Musharraf and have staked out plans to trim his powers and entrench civilian rule in a country dominated for most of its 60-year history by the military.
Yet Zardari's liberal party has repeatedly hinted that it could govern without Sharif, a traditional archrival of Bhutto with links to religious conservatives.