A week after the resignation of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on 18 August 2008, the beleaguered country witnessed another high profile political event, in the form of the withdrawal of support to the coalition government at the centre, by the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). This has effectively reduced the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan's Peoples Party (PPP) a thin majority. The alliance of the traditional rivals in the aftermath of the Benazir Bhutto assassination has been variously described as an "un-natural alliance" and a "marriage of convenience," while it has been heralded by some as providing democratic and reformist measures in the wake of the increasing anti-Musharraf sentiment on the streets of Pakistan. The optimism which has given way to despair has been lamented by Sharif himself, when he said, "I had allied with the PPP to steer the country out of the prevailing crises."
Interestingly, Sharif made his decision to withdraw support to the Asif Zardari-led PPP, shortly after he achieved one of his stated goals of dethroning Musharraf. The declaration by the two leaders in February 2008, stated the two parties would work together to impeach President Musharraf and reinstate the Supreme Court judges who had been sacked by him. Sharif's decision to withdraw was a sign of protest against Zardari's alleged refusal to accede to his demands of reinstating the judges. Sharif also criticized Zardari's decision to run for the September 6 presidential election. According to Sharif, the two parties had agreed to revoke the 17th Amendment, reduce the powers of the presidency and nominate a non-partisan candidate. The PPP, however, backtracked on the agreement and nominated Zardari as its candidate for the presidential polls. The PML-N has now nominated former Chief Justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui while the PML-Q has pitched in for Mushahid Hussain Sayed against Zardari.
The judicial question is emotive for Nawaz Sharif, who has consistently supported the lawyers strike, in the wake of the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in May 2007. The belief is that Sharif's judicial woes, particularly over his eligibility to contest elections after being charged with corruption, would be eased if Musharraf's appointed judges were not in charge. Zardari, who was acquitted in a number of cases, meanwhile fears a reinstated judiciary would possibly overturn the decisions. Furthermore, the amnesty granted to Zardari by Musharraf was under the threat of revocation by Chaudhry, till his removal. The signs of strain in the relationship between the two parties were witnessed when Zardari lashed out at PML-N Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif in May 2008, for not taking measures to release a friend languishing in a Punjab jail, who was convicted for drug smuggling. In the same month, the PML-N stepped up pressure on Zardari on the judicial question by declaring only external support to the government till Nawaz Sharif's demands were met.
The implications of this fallout can be saved for another day because of the prevailing uncertainty in Pakistan. Since March 2007, the political landscape in Pakistan has been so uncertain with dramatic changes almost each day, that, permutations and combinations of 'what next' seem not just inexplicable but also futile to a large extent. This, of course, does not discount the political, economic and security ramifications as a result of the split. At one level, the fallout can be viewed as those common to coalition politics in most democracies. In terms of the number of seats in the National Assembly (NA), the PPP will not be affected by the pullout. Out of the 342 seats in the NA, the coalition government (minus the 92 PML-N members) has a majority including 124 seats of the PPP, 13 seats of the Awami National Party, six of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam faction of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and 18 independents from the FATA supporting the government. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) supports the PPP in Sindh but has only extended support to the ruling coalition from the outside in the National Assembly. The MQM with 25 members in the NA will help get the PPP a comfortable majority of 171. The split, however, will see the PML-Q members joining either the PPP or the PML-N; a PPP-PML-Q alliance may spell trouble for the PML-N government in Punjab. Likewise, the numbers for the 702-seat presidential electorate college stands in favour of the PPP, at present.
While the government may survive, the attempt to strengthen democratic institutions in Pakistan has once again received a severe blow. Islamabad is also likely to witness the prominence of regional parties at the centre. While the regional parties' participation in the ruling coalition is a good sign in terms of breaking the tradition of dynasty politics or monopoly by a single party, any lack of consensus among the parties on major domestic and foreign policies issues will continue to affect the government's performance. It will also be interesting to see if the PML-N plays a "constructive role" from the opposition benches rather than contesting every move of the government. For Pakistan, 2007 was merely a curtain raiser; the show has just begun.