By Karin Brulliard and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 7:22 PM
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A major Pakistani political party said Tuesday that it would pull its two members from the federal cabinet, renewing questions about the viability of the beleaguered governing coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party.
The move by the Muttahida Quami Movement, which controls the large port city of Karachi, does not endanger the government in the immediate future. But the party indicated that it was also considering withdrawing from the coalition - a move that could cost the U.S.-backed government its parliamentary majority or, if the MQM joined the opposition, cause the government to collapse.
The decision sent tremors through an administration grappling with a depressed economy, a powerful Islamist insurgency and persistent violence in Karachi. It also boosted pressure on a coalition that was weakened this month when a small religious party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami, joined the opposition.
That party's leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, called Tuesday for the resignation of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who he said was overseeing a crisis that "could derail democracy."
In announcing the cabinet resignations, MQM leaders cited anger that the cabinet had "ignored" their party's proposals. But they also said they wanted to give the government time to improve.
"The government has failed to address the serious problems confronting the poor masses," said Faisal Sabzwari, a senior MQM leader. But he added: "We know the inflation can't be done away with in a single night, and the same is the case with the law and order situation. But steps toward good governance could resolve these matters."
The Pakistan People's Party and the MQM, which has 25 seats in the National Assembly, have become increasingly at odds. The MQM has emerged as a vocal opponent of a proposed sales tax overhaul that the government promised the International Monetary Fund it would implement. An $11 billion IMF loan is helping keep Pakistan's economy afloat.
More recently, the two parties have clashed over comments by the home minister for Sindh province, a PPP member who publicly accused the MQM of inciting violence in Karachi. Hundreds of targeted killings have been carried out in Karachi this year, many attributed to gangs affiliated with the MQM and its rival, the Awami National Party.
With tensions rising, Zardari this week instructed his party's leaders to refrain from publicly commenting on its allies, according to Pakistani news reports. PPP officials, however, insisted Tuesday that they could sustain the coalition, and they indicated willingness to strike deals to ensure that.
"We have been allies for years, and I fully hope we will be able to bring back the MQM into central government soon," said Fozia Wahab, a PPP spokeswoman. "In politics, there is always a room for reconciliation."
Indeed, analysts said the MQM was probably using the threat of a pullout as a bargaining chip, perhaps in a bid to oust the Sindh home minister or to gain control over more federal ministries. Yet the party also appears to want to distance itself from an unpopular government as opposition grows louder, said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
"It does not augur well for the government," Rais said. "At the moment, if the PPP government is going to fall, the MQM would like to be on the side of those who are causing it to fall."
The latest political waves follow renewed militant violence in the northwestern tribal areas, where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have found sanctuary. Last week, militants attacked several security checkpoints in the Mohmand region of the semiautonomous tribal areas, setting off pitched battles that left 11 troops and 24 militants dead. A day later, a suicide bombing killed 42 people at a food distribution center in nearby Bajaur.
The United States wants Pakistan to launch more aggressive military operations in the region, but Pakistan says its army is overstretched.
The CIA, meanwhile, has escalated drone-fired missile strikes in the tribal areas. On Tuesday, three suspected strikes from unmanned aircraft hit North Waziristan, according to the Associated Press, raising the number of drone attacks this year to 116.
Hussain is a special correspondent.