By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:57 AM
KARACHI, PAKISTAN - The second-largest party in Pakistan's ruling coalition said Sunday that it would defect to the opposition, greatly imperiling the U.S.-allied government by leaving it without a parliamentary majority.
The surprising move by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which dominates this southern metropolis, prompted President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party to search for ways to salvage or refashion the coalition and prevent the collapse of its government. Even if they are successful, analysts said, the development will further enfeeble the administration, diverting attention from economic woes and its U.S-backed fight against Taliban insurgents.
The MQM's pullout came days after the party withdrew its two cabinet ministers over what it said was poor government performance, a decision many observers deemed a theatrical step meant to wrest concessions from the coalition. But the party said Sunday that popular unrest over a recent fuel price increase made it impossible for it to remain allied to the government.
"This decision has been taken in the interests of the country and its people," said Raza Haroon, a senior MQM leader.
The loss of a majority could lead parliament to hold a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, possibly triggering early elections - a daunting prospect in a nation where suicide bombers strike regularly.
To retain a majority, the PPP - which took power in 2008 - must win back the MQM or woo other opposition parties, which might not want to risk affiliation with an increasingly unpopular government. An Islamic party withdrew its seven seats from the coalition last month, and its leader has called for Gillani's firing.
"This move has created a real crisis of survival for the federal government," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a political analyst. "They have breathing space for winning over some members . . . but in the present situation where they have lost the majority, the government cannot go on indefinitely. So they'll have to do some politics."
The United States, which has pumped military aid into Pakistan since 2001, pledged billions of dollars in 2009 to help shore up the civilian government, whose stability the Obama administration views as key to success in the Afghanistan war. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are based in Pakistan's border region, from where they launch attacks on NATO troops. But homegrown militants pose a rising threat to the Pakistani state.
Gillani, speaking to reporters in Lahore, dismissed the notion of a crisis, saying the "government will not fall."
"This is a fledgling democracy and everyone is figuring out their roles," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a Zardari spokeswoman. "President Zardari has already assured the MQM that all their concerns will be addressed. The government will continue to strive to keep the coalition intact."
The development immediately cast a spotlight on the main opposition party, the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The party could band together with the MQM to bring down the government, but they have been engaged in vicious verbal sparring in recent days, and analysts say the chances of an alliance are close to nil. A PML-N spokesman said the party would announce its position Monday.
Most political analysts say Sharif does not want to take power when the government is saddled with a tanking economy and a muscular Taliban insurgency, preferring instead to gain support ahead of elections scheduled for 2013.
Sharif pledged recently to uphold the democratic process and refrain from destabilizing the government, a statement widely interpreted to mean his party would not support a no-confidence vote, which requires a majority to pass.
Yet that might not help matters much: If the opposition were unable to coalesce into a majority, legislative deadlock could follow. So could massive popular frustration with the government - something that has precipitated past coups by Pakistan's powerful military.
"Even if the PPP and the PML-N vote together to prove the government can survive, effectively you have legislative gridlock. You have a minority government, a tenuous scenario," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist at Dawn, an English daily. "Certainly in the Pakistan environment, it couldn't last too long."
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing, said Zardari and other senior PPP officials were toiling to patch up the alliance.
"None of this is going to happen in the next 48 hours," the official said of the MQM's formal move to the opposition benches or a potential no-confidence vote. "There's a lot of time for back-channel politics and continuation of dialogue."
Analysts said that would likely mean granting some of the MQM's wishes. The party, whose influence in Karachi has been slightly eroded by the PPP and a Pashtun political party, wants the restoration of a district-level government system that would strengthen its rule over the city.
In a statement announcing its withdrawal, the MQM listed demands, including the retraction of a government-backed sales tax proposal and last week's gasoline price increase.
Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Mohammed Rizwan contributed to this report.