Ministers quit Pakistan cabinet Declan Walsh in Islamabad The Guardian Monday May 12 2008 Pakistan's fragile coalition government suffered a bruising blow today when Nawaz Sharif, leader of the second largest party, pulled his ministers from the six-week-old cabinet. The withdrawal followed the collapse of talks with the leader of the largest party, Asif Ali Zardari, over how to reinstate about 45 senior judges who were sacked by President Pervez Musharraf last November. After last-ditch talks in Dubai and London, Sharif returned to Islamabad to announce that his ministers would resign tomorrow. Nine of the 24 cabinet positions, including finance minister, are held by Sharif loyalists. The split destabilises Pakistani politics and raised fears for the transition to civilian rule after nine years under Musharraf. But for now it is more of a political trial separation than a divorce. Sharif said he was "very pained" to withdraw his ministers and would not seek to collapse the fledgling government. Instead of joining the opposition his party would support Zardari's on an "issue by issue" basis. "We will not become part of any conspiracy to destabilise the democratic process," he said. Zardari's Pakistan People's party (PPP) continued the conciliatory tone, saying the issue was not whether the judges should be restored but "how best to do it". The awkward manoeuvres between the political allies are the public face of a complex power negotiation involving Pakistani diplomats, military generals and influential American officials. On the surface, Sharif and Zardari are arguing about a relatively technical issue. Both agree that that sacked judges, including the firebrand former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, should be reinstated. But while Sharif advocates their immediate return, Zardari's PPP wants a more cautious approach including a judicial reform package to limit the chief justice's powers. In reality, though, the controversy overlays a more sensitive debate about the fate of Musharraf, who suffered a humiliating defeat in last February's election. Musharraf has made it clear that he is not prepared to stomach the return of Chaudhry. And despite his electoral collapse he still enjoys the support of two powerful backers: the Pakistani military and the US government. President George Bush wants his old ally Musharraf to remain in power, and last weekend dispatched the assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher to meet with Zardari and Sharif in London the latest of several meetings between US and Pakistani officials at critical junctures. Although in public the US favours a transition to civilian-led democracy, its first objective is to ensure cooperation in the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan who may be plotting attacks on Afghanistan or the west. That cooperation is underscored by the Pakistani military, which also appears to want to keep Musharraf in power. The importance of those military ties was underscored today by a visit from the acting commander of US central command, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, to military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Before leaving he said the meetings were "vital and productive, and I look forward to more visits with all of them in future". The US role has dismayed civil society activists inside Pakistan. "There's a lot of pressure from abroad but it's all for Pervez Musharraf," said senior lawyer Athar Minallah. "But what do they gain out of him right now? It's beyond my comprehension." The resignation of Sharif's ministers leaves the government precariously exposed at a time of deepening economic difficulties and growing public impatience. Zardari's popularity is slipping and the media has become increasingly critical. If his party is entirely deserted by Sharif he will have to rely on support from Musharraf loyalists a politically devastating blow. Meanwhile the country is burdened by chronic electricity shortages and rising inflation, running at 17% in April. Business confidence is also sliding: last week the Karachi stock exchange dipped 5% and the rupee slid to an all-time low against the US dollar.