Pakistan's five-month-old coalition government, which came to power on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and on widespread discontentment with President Pervez Musharraf, dissolved this afternoon, opening a path for Bhutto's widower to consolidate power as president.
In a press conference, Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who currently leads the second-largest political party in Pakistan, said he has pulled out of the ruling coalition that helped push Musharraf out of office. Sharif's party, the PML-N, split with the Pakistan People's Party over what Sharif called broken promises by the PPP to reinstate judges fired by Musharraf and choose a "nonpartisan" candidate for president.
"These repeated defaults and violations have forced us to withdraw our support from the ruling coalition and sit on the opposition benches," Sharif said to a room of 100 journalists and nearly as many cameras.
Sharif's announcement forces the PPP and its co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, to reach out to smaller parties to form a new coalition government. Once that is done, Zardari, who is Bhutto's widower, is likely to become Pakistan's next president Sept. 6.
In a video statement, Zardari responded to Sharif's announcement, asking him to return to the coalition.
"If you are hurt, you forgive us. Let's write together a chapter of the new Pakistan. I admit that you are hurt. We apologize for tha,t" Zardari said. "For the sake of democracy, for the sake of Pakistan," he continued, "you come along with us in this test, and we will come with you in the next test."
Sharif himself said he did not want to stand in the way of a PPP-led government, even though he and his aides were furious when the PPP failed to tell them in advance that Zardari would be put forward as the presidential candidate. He promised to lead a "constructive" opposition party.
"We don't want to be instrumental in overthrowing any government. We don't have any such intentions," he said.
Sharif announced that Saeed Zaman Siddiqui, a former judge, would be its candidate for president, and that the party would continue to push for all 60 judges sacked last year by Musharraf to be reinstated.
The political squabbling comes as the PPP-led government seems to be taking a more confrontational stance against militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a policy the United States wants to continue.
Today the Interior Ministry announced it was "banning" the Taliban movement in Pakistan. Any known Taliban bank accounts and assets will be frozen, and anyone caught helping the Taliban faces up to 10 years in prison.
That move came just hours after the government declined an offer by the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal, a policy that both this government and Musharraf have used at times in the past. Instead, the military is currently overseeing one of its most aggressive actions against the militants in years.
In Bajour, where the Taliban has particularly close ties to al Qaeda, the Frontier Corps has been battling militants for 18 days. In the last 24 hours, 50 militants and 10 soldiers have been killed, according to the military.