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.
"For Pakistan it's really a fight for its own existence," said Shuja Nawaz, the author of the recently released "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Enemy Within." "Because if it allows the militants to gain a foothold in one or two of the border provinces of Afghanistan … you are likely to see an internal civil war type situation developing. And [the militants are] extremely well-armed and they're facing an army which is a conventional army and not ready for counterinsurgency yet."
Record violence in 2007 gave way to a brief lull in suicide attacks after the government signed a peace agreement with militants in February. But that lull has literally exploded as the Taliban in Pakistan took credit for at least four suicide bombs last week that killed about 100 people, including 67 in the one of the most violent incidents in the country's history.
"The war on terror cannot be won on defensive. We have to take the battle to the doorsteps of the extremists," Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Gilan said last week. "We are not being attacked by any outside military or a known army. Our enemy lurks silently within our society. This is our own war."
Just yesterday, Zardari himself said he believes that across the globe the militants are winning.
"The world is losing the war. I think at the moment [the Taliban] definitely have the upper hand," he told the BBC Sunday, less than a day after he was nominated for president. "The issue, which is not just a bad case scenario as far as Pakistan is concerned or as Afghanistan is concerned, but it is going to be spreading further. The whole world is going to be affected by it."
The military will oversee the fight in the Northwest Frontier, and the front-line soldiers will be provided by the underfunded Frontier Corps. But Zardari is expected to yield enormous power over military, social and economic policy if he becomes president.
"I don't think he has any barrier. The only restraint on him is he himself," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "He is the center of all power in Pakistan today."
Zardari could be similar to Pervez Musharraf, analysts said, in the sense that he will rule Pakistan as an executive president instead of the figurehead position it has traditionally been under civilian governments.
"There is a danger that he would be able to centralize power," said retired Gen. Talat Masood, a defense secretary under Benazir Bhutto. "And it may suit America for the time being -- it may be expedient -- but in the long run I think it will be harmful to Pakistan and to American interests."
But there are more checks on Zardari than there were when Musharraf took power. In the last few years, a rapidly expanding media have become much more vocal, and Sharif's party maintains power in the Punjab, the largest and richest of the country's four provinces.
The future political stability of Pakistan "really depends whether Zardari is going to be content with power sharing at the center, and power sharing in the provinces," Rais said.
Zardari will complete a remarkable transformation from playboy to president if he becomes the head of the government. When his wife was in power, he was nicknamed "Mr. Ten Percent" for allegedly asking for a cut of every deal he touched. He was jailed for 11 years on corruption and murder charges, but was never convicted of anything.
On Monday prosecutors in both Pakistan and Geneva dropped charges against Zardari for money laundering.
But Pakistanis still do not trust him and are suffering not only from increased violence but from the economic crisis as well. The official inflation in Pakistan is more than 25 percent, the highest in the country's history.
As Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, put it: "I think the broad message is we have to be patient, because Pakistan does not have a George Washington that is going to come out of the woodwork and turn its country around."