ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Prospects for political stability in Pakistan faded on Tuesday, a day after a split in the ruling coalition, with a battle looming over who will become the next president of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
The resignation of the unpopular Pervez Musharraf as president last week raised hopes the coalition, led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, would focus on mounting militant violence and a sagging economy.
But a week after Musharraf stepped down, the alliance’s second biggest party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, pulled out, complaining Bhutto’s party had reneged on promises to resolve a judicial dispute and on a replacement for Musharraf as president.
The departure of Sharif’s party will not force a general election as Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will be able to gather enough support to govern, analysts say.
But it sets the scene for direct competition between the two biggest parties, which were bitter rivals during the 1990s when Bhutto and Sharif were each in office twice as prime minister.
Even though Sharif has promised not to destabilize the government, there are fears of a return of the fractious politics of the 1990s which were brought to an end by then army chief Musharraf’s coup against Sharif in 1999.
“The fear is, given our track record, that the sailing will not be so smooth,” said former newspaper editor and analyst Rashid Rehman.
“We may return to the hoary days of the past which discredited the political class as a whole and prepared the ground for an extra-constitutional intervention,” he said, referring to the military.
“This is a threat that looms over our heads permanently.”
Investors are watching with a deepening sense of gloom.
Stocks fell more than 4 percent on Tuesday to a new two-year low on fears of more political uncertainty. The rupee hovered near a record low against the dollar, weakening 0.3 percent.
The United States has declined to comment on the split in the coalition saying it is an internal affair, but it and other allies have been hoping for an end to the infighting and a focus on problems, in particular the battle against militancy.
The danger was underscored on Tuesday when gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying the principal officer of the U.S. consulate in the city of Peshawar. No one was hurt.
“The implications of the coalition’s break-up are immense,” the Dawn newspaper said in an editorial. “Beside a worsening of the economic situation, the political instability could encourage the Taliban to step up their war on Pakistan.”
Rival candidates filed nominations on Tuesday for a September 6 presidential election, in which members of the country’s four provincial assemblies and the national parliament will vote.
The PPP’s candidate is Bhutto’s widower and political successor, Asif Ali Zardari.
Sharif, who said Zardari’s nomination violated a pact on a non-partisan candidate, has put forward a former chief justice, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League has nominated party official Mushahid Hussain Sayed.
The unresolved question of the restoration of judges deposed by Musharraf last year also hangs over the government.
While Sharif has been insisting the judges get their jobs back, the PPP is reluctant because of worry the deposed chief justice might take up challenges to an amnesty granted to Zardari and other party leaders from graft charges last year.
Lawyers will launch a fresh round of protests to press for the reinstatement of their colleagues on Thursday, and Sharif’;s party, from its power base of Punjab province, is expected to lend the campaign its support.
“If they sustain it, the political pressure will grow and it will become a very difficult hot potato to handle,” Rehman said.