Pakistan's new leaders failed to meet a Wednesday deadline to resolve a dispute about reinstating judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf that has threatened their month-old coalition government.
After some seven hours of talks in Dubai, officials decided to resume negotiations on Thursday. "There has been progress," said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a senior official in the party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He declined to give details, but said there were still "issues that need to be resolved".
Meanwhile on Wednesday, a spokesman for the main pro-Musharraf party said it would offer its own proposal for restoring the judges and consider the possibility of joining a new ruling coalition if the current one breaks apart.
Musharraf purged the Supreme Court last year to stop legal challenges to his continuation in office. Allies of the US-backed president were routed in February elections by the parties that formed the new government. The new ruling coalition had promised to reinstate the judges by the end of April, but its leaders have yet to agree on exactly how.
If the coalition unravels, it could bring more political instability to a country considered key to US goals in the war on terror.
The larger coalition party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of ex-leader Benazir Bhutto, wants to link the restoration of the judges to a proposed package of judicial reforms that could narrow the powers of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and prevent judges from getting involved in politics. Zardari has accused Chaudhry and other judges of "playing politics" and failing to deliver justice to him during the years he spent in jail on unproven corruption charges.
Sharif has said the two parties must honor a pledge to use a parliamentary resolution to restore the judiciary to the position it held before Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3. But he has urged the broader reforms be kept separate. "The resolution is a simple resolution ... we will be very happy to look at the constitutional package whenever it comes to us," Sharif told reporters.
Sharif said earlier that he "wholeheartedly" wanted to keep the coalition intact. His party has threatened to pull its ministers from the federal Cabinet if the judges issue drags on, but says it will remain part of the coalition.
A close Zardari aide suggested late Tuesday the alliance risked collapse over the issue.
Sharif's party had "suddenly" balked at the wider reforms, Rehman said on Dawn News television. "We will still carry on. It will be very regrettable if there is a break in the coalition," Rehman said.
But on Wednesday, in between sessions, Zardari said "Yes, obviously," when asked if the coalition was as strong as ever. And officials from both parties sought to downplay the Wednesday deadline.
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Zardari's party, told Dawn News that the deadline was "not critically important" as long as the deal eventually reached was smoothly implemented. Khan, of Sharif's party, said as Wednesday's sessions ended that "a day or two here and there doesn't matter."
Musharraf removed Chaudhry just as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the legality of his election in October to a new five-year presidential term. Musharraf accused the chief justice of corruption and conspiring against him and his plans to guide Pakistan back to democracy.
Chaudhry had shown an unusual degree of independence, blocking government privatization deals and investigating complaints that its spy agencies were holding opposition activists secretly under the cover of fighting international terrorism.
Some analysts predict Musharraf might have to quit if Chaudhry is restored and the court revisits the president's disputed re-election.
Sharif, whose government was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup, is demanding the ex-general's ouster. Yet Zardari's liberal party has repeatedly hinted it could govern without Sharif, a traditional rival with links to religious conservatives.
The political brinkmanship has stirred talk in the local media about the revival of a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto discussed before she was killed in December. The main pro-Musharraf party, now in the minority, was considering its options on Wednesday.
Spokesman Tariq Azeem said the party would offer a resolution aimed at restoring the judiciary _ including Chaudhry _ if the current coalition could not offer a proposal.
Asked if Musharraf agreed with the intended move, Azeem said "much water has passed under the bridge and the ground reality has now changed, which requires resolution of the judicial issue as the entire judicial system is jammed and people are suffering." Azeem also said the party would consider whether to join Zardari's party in a coalition if Sharif's party leaves the government.
"We will see as to what are the terms and conditions for doing so," Azeem said. "We cannot rule it out."
Also Wednesday, Bhutto's party agreed to share power in the southern province of Sindh with a Karachi-based party that backed the previous pro-Musharraf government. Officials said there were no plans for it to join the federal coalition.