ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The head of Pakistan’s ruling coalition has refused to accept the resignations of ministers from the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and aims to persuade it to rejoin their six-week-old government.
Nine ministers from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N), quit the cabinet led by the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Tuesday after their leaders failed to reach agreement on the restoration of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf in November.
But Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower and leader of the coalition, has told Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani not to accept the resignations and he would persuade Sharif to withdraw them and rejoin the cabinet.
“Mr Asif Ali Zardari said that he was committed to promoting national reconciliation and asked the prime minister not to accept resignations tendered by the PML (N) ministers,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement issued late on Thursday.
The resignations have fuelled fears that the coalition might collapse and plunge the nuclear-armed U.S. ally back into turbulence, though Sharif has assured he would continue to support the government from the outside.
Underlining those concerns, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s cut Pakistan’s sovereign rating on Thursday, citing increasing pressure from expanding budget and trade deficits against a volatile political setting
Analysts say new strains are cropping up within the coalition.
On Thursday, Musharraf appointed a new governor for the central province of Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province and the traditional heartland of the political-military establishment, which is also Sharif’s power base.
The new governor, Salman Taseer, is a veteran member of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and is widely seen as an old adversary of Sharif.
Taseer, who is also seen as close to Musharraf, was appointed governor on the recommendation of the PPP. Unelected governors represent the federal government and traditionally wield significant influence over provincial governments.
Sharif’s party is highly suspicious of Taseer’s appointment with some members seeing it setting the scene for efforts to destabilise the Punjab provincial government it dominates.
Differences between the two major parties have renewed talk of a secret deal between the PPP and the unpopular Musharraf and fuelled speculation that Zardari is ready to prop up Musharraf if Sharif fails to fall into line.
Sharif has threatened to join the lawyers community if it launches a protest movement to press the government to reinstate the judges Musharraf dismissed after he imposed emergency rule.
Zardari says he too wants to reinstate the judges but wants
to tie it to a constitutional package of political and judicial reforms. The proposed constitutional changes could sideline the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has become a rally figure for anti-Musharraf forces after he refused to resign under Musharraf’s pressure in March last year.
But some analysts said despite the strains, the two major parties would not like to part ways at a time when they are confronting a powerful president.
The coalition is currently short of the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution to clip Musharraf’s powers including one to dismiss a government and could secure those numbers only after elections of the upper house Senate in early 2009.
“I think the PPP will work very hard to maintain this coalition because it needs the PML (N) to get 58-2 (b) removed,” said political analyst and academic Rasul Baksh Rais, referring to the clause in the constitution that gives president the power to dismiss a government.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani