Pakistan's ruling coalition on Monday appeared to be on the verge of a split after the PPP failed to reach an agreement with its key ally PML-N on the contentious issue of reinstating dozens of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf during last year's emergency.
Three days of talks in London between Pakistan People's Party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and their close aides ended in deadlock on Sunday due to differences on the modalities for reinstating the judges.
The PML-N, which earlier set May 12 as the deadline for reinstating the judges, has threatened to quit the cabinet on Monday over the issue. This was the second deadline set for restoring the judges after both the parties failed to deliver on a pledge to reinstate them by April 30.
Sharif and his brother, PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, flew into Islamabad on Monday morning to be greeted by hundreds of their cheering supporters. They did not speak to the waiting media but said they would make an "important announcement" at a press conference later on Monday.
PML-N spokesman Siddique-ul-Farooq blamed the PPP for the impasse. "The talks have not moved forward because of a deadlock caused by the PPP. Our credibility is at stake and we do not want to be called cheaters by the people because we had committed ourselves to reinstating the judges," he said.
The deadlock could not be broken even by the intervention of US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who made a stopover in London on his way back home from Bangladesh to hold separate meetings with Sharif and Zardari.
While noting that his brother was "not in the habit of taking dictation from outsiders", Shahbaz Sharif said Boucher "favoured the idea of keeping the PPP-PML-N coalition intact".
Following Boucher's meetings with Sharif and Zardari, who came together on March nine to form an alliance, PPP and PML-N leaders held a final round of negotiations but were unable to achieve a breakthrough as each side refused to budge from its stated position.
Sharif will chair a crucial meeting of the PML-N's parliamentary party and central working committee on Monday to decide his future course of action.
Senior PML-N leader and Education Minister Ahsan Iqbal on Sunday warned that the party would quit the cabinet if the deposed judges were not reinstated on May 12.
The PML-N chief on Sunday expressed his disappointment over the failure of the talks with the PPP and said the entire nation felt unhappy about it.
Sharif told reporters in London, "There is a deadlock which we have not been able to resolve despite our sincere efforts. I think every Pakistani is disappointed over the outcome of these talks.
"We have been holding these talks for the last one-and-half months but they still remain inconclusive although we are committed through the Murree agreement that both parties will together pass a (parliamentary resolution to restore the judges. The judges have not been restored, which of course is disappointing."
Sharif said the PML-N had worked till the last minute to keep the coalition intact and to reinstate the deposed judges. "We want the dignified and honourable return of the sacked judges," he said.