Pakistan's fragile coalition government has made little progress on the key issue that swept them to power in February's elections: reinstating judges who were thrown out of office by President Musharraf last November. In an interview with VOA's Barry Newhouse in Lahore, Pakistan Muslim League-N party leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said reinstating the judges is directly linked to resolving the country's other problems.

In the February elections, Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party won the second-largest number of seats in the national assembly, largely because of Mr. Sharif's strong opposition to President Musharraf, whom he continues to insist should step down.

"People want to see the change that they voted for," he said. "Of course the first change they wanted to see and still want to see is to have a new president of this country. Because they are absolutely certain that the eight years of Musharraf's rule have brought them a lot of problems."

Pakistan's problems include a Taliban insurgency along the Afghan border that has spread in the past year, with suicide-bomb attacks in major cities. The country also faces a deepening economic crisis, with high food prices and electricity shortages.

But the government in Islamabad is focusing mainly on reinstating the deposed judges, who have strong backing from outspoken lawyers' groups across the country. Mr. Sharif dismisses suggestions the government has ignored serious problems while it remains deadlocked on the judges' issue.

"This issue I think can, God forbid, make or break a democratic Pakistan," he said. "So if we ignore this issue and just simply allow it to fade out, I think we will be committing the biggest crime in the political history of the country."

The PML-N and Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party are split over how to reinstate the judges, with the PPP insisting that broader reforms are necessary to prevent a conflict with the constitution. The PML-N wants to replace the current judges with the deposed judges.

This month, nine PML-N cabinet ministers left the government in protest over the issue, but party leaders say they will continue to negotiate. In the long term, Mr. Sharif says the government must emerge from the shadow of President Musharraf, who he says has dominated Pakistan, and its relationship with the United States, for too long.

"I think Musharraf is Musharraf, Pakistan is Pakistan," he said. "They must not equate Musharraf with Pakistan or equate Pakistan with Musharraf. U.S. policy all along has been to support the people of Pakistan and to have friendly relations with the country and not with one man."

In recent years the United States has been criticized in Pakistan for backing President Musharraf while he maintained a tight grip on power. But since the elections, U.S. diplomats have reached out to all major political forces in the country, including Mr. Sharif.

The former prime minister and Asif Zardari are the country's most-watched political leaders, and their standoff on the judges issue is drawing concern. But Mr. Sharif says he is hopeful about a resolution, and says he recognizes the public's impatience for reform. He says all Pakistanis want change sooner rather than later.