Pakistan’s prime minister is trying to keep his government from collapsing after a key party said it was quitting the ruling coalition, leaving the government short of majority support in parliament.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the second largest party in the ruling coalition, said yesterday it would join the opposition because of fuel price hikes, inflation and what it said was a general poor performance by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
The defection deprives Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s government of the 172 seats needed for a majority in the 342-member parliament.
That means the fractured opposition parties – if they can work together – could raise a no-confidence vote in Gilani, which if passed by a majority of lawmakers would remove the prime minister from office and possibly trigger early elections.
The political crisis is almost certain to distract the government at a time when the US is pushing Islamabad to do more to help turn around the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, although security is largely the purview of Pakistan’s powerful military.
It also all-but guarantees lawmakers will make no progress soon on solving the economic problems that have frustrated ordinary Pakistanis and forced the country to rely on $11bn (€8.25bn) in loans from the International Monetary Fund.
With his job on the line, Gilani was scrambling today to secure the support of opposition groups to avoid a no-confidence vote. He met with representatives of the biggest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, as well the second largest opposition group, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
But it was unclear whether he had made any headway. One opposition leader said his party had nothing against the prime minister, but stressed that it could only support Gilani’s government if it improved its performance.
“Today we gave support with a condition, and that condition is the real issues of the people are addressed,” said Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q.
PML-N leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan avoided directly addressing whether his faction would support a no-confidence vote.
“We will not destabilise this government, but if it loses its majority we will not support it,” he said. “We will no way give it a shoulder.”
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is the head of the People’s Party. His position as president would likely be safe even if the Party loses its majority in Parliament.
Analysts speculated that Zardari might be willing to replace Gilani with a premier more acceptable to other parties to avoid the PPP losing power. But Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar said today the president backs Gilani and will not abandon him.
The MQM said yesterday it was quitting the ruling coalition after the government announced hikes in petrol and heating oil prices on New Year’s Eve.
“The petrol bomb the government has dropped on the people of Pakistan has forced our party to part ways with such insane decisions,” said Faisal Subzwari, an MQM leader.