Nawaz Sharif set a Monday deadline for reinstatement of the judges Pervez Musharraf fired before the presidential election, and he apparently meant what he said. With the leading PPP party unwilling to fire the replacement judges, the PML-N cabinet members submitted their resignations today. Sharif insisted that the PML-N would remain in a ruling coalition in Parliament, but clearly the alliance has strained to the breaking point:

Nine ministers from the party of former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif resigned Tuesday over a dispute about the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf, state TV said.

The ministers from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) submitted their resignations to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at his office in Islamabad, the report said.

Sharif announced Monday his party would withdraw from the cabinet after coalition missed a Monday deadline to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf last year under emergency rule.

The move could plunge Pakistan and its six-week-old government into a fresh political crisis, although Sharif insisted the PML-N would continue to support Gilani’s government.

AFP points out an interesting dynamic that has gone underreported in the judiciary debate. The deposed judges had yet to rule on Pervez Musharraf’s eligibility for the presidency, who did not wait the constitutionally-required five years after resigning from the military to run. However, they also had not yet ruled on the legality of the amnesty Musharraf granted political figures such as Benazir Bhutto as a means to have them return to public life.

Bhutto led the PPP until her assassination, and her husband leads it now — and he also received that amnesty. Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf deposed in the 1999 coup, did not. Sharif could not run for a Parliament seat as a result, and he has personal reasons for pressing the issue on the judges.

Sharif shrewdly chose a middle course here, hoping to retain influence in the coalition while pressuring Gilani into action. Had he left the PPP’s alliance altogether, it would have freed Gilani to cut a deal with Musharraf and the PML-Q for a governing majority; in fact, Gilani would have no other option. As it is presently, the PPP would risk public wrath in allying with the unpopular Musharraf and pave the way for an electoral victory for the PML-N and Sharif in the next elections.