Pakistan's political crisis: Prime Minister Gilani scrambles to shore up confidence

The departure of a key partner in the ruling coalition has sparked a Pakistan political crisis that could distract the government from pressing security and economic problems.

By , Correspondent

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    Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, center, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inspect a military guard of honor before their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Dec. 7, 2010.
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Pakistan’s civilian government faces a fight for survival after the withdrawal of a key coalition partner on Sunday left Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani unable to command a majority in parliament.

The departure of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) from the coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has sparked a political crisis that may prove a costly distraction to the country and its Western allies as it battles Al Qaeda and Taliban militants on its western border, all the while struggling to keep a check on inflation and a sliding economy. The MQM's move also strengthens the hand of the military should it wish to play a more direct role in governance via a puppet government, experts believe.

As of Monday afternoon, Mr. Gilani was left scrambling for new partners to avert the possibility of a no-confidence vote by the opposition which, though unlikely, could technically remove him from office. Analysts believe that even if the government continues to hold onto power without the means to pass legislation, it could hasten calls for fresh elections.

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“Nothing will get done if the government limps on [without new support],” says Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. “Eventually something will have to give and a fresh election would be called.”

Mr. Gilani dismissed the notion of an impending crisis, telling reporters in Lahore on Sunday that his government is staying put and did not require partners to govern. By Monday, however, he was engaged in rounds of talks with members of opposition parties, including Shabaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab Province and a senior leader in the PML-N, the main opposition party.

The withdraw of MQM

The withdrawal of the MQM from the coalition comes a week after it withdrew its ministers from the cabinet, and a little more than two weeks after the government lost another partner – the hard-line Islamist JUI-F. It leaves the ruling coalition with 158 seats in parliament, while the opposition parties combined hold 174 seats.

Though the MQM is ideologically somewhat aligned to the ruling PPP – the two nominally share secular and progressive values – relations between the parties have been strained since the 2008 general elections. In the province of Sindh, the two are engaged in a three-way blame game, along with the ethnic Pashtun ANP party, over ongoing sectarian violence in the city of Karachi that spiked to new levels in 2009. At the national level, the MQM has become a leading voice in opposition to PPP’s tax policy at the federal level, which it says is regressive and favors the rich.

“The recent price hike [of petroleum products] and the taxation policy played a very major role in the decision,” says Faisal Sabzwari, a senior MQM leader. “What the MQM was proposing was taxation on those who are not paying taxes, like the feudal class and the tax evaders.” He points out that an MQM-proposed bill to limit the landholdings of powerful feudal landowners was not tabled before the House by the PPP, which contains several powerful landowners in its parliamentarian ranks.

The move may make it impossible for the government to carry out economic reforms, such as a proposed new sales tax, favored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and one of several demands made by the IMF in return for an $11 billion loan.

Still a chance for MQM comeback?

A senior PPP lawmaker told the Monitor that President Asif Ali Zardari is still attempting to woo the MQM back into the coalition with a series of concessions, adding that nothing is yet set in stone.

The government may take comfort from the fact that Nawaz Sharif, who heads the right-of-center PML-N party (and is the brother of Shahbaz Sharif), has repeatedly stated his desire that the government sees out its full term to 2013. Analysts believe Mr. Sharif has no desire to come to power early while the country’s economic and security situation remain dire. Additionally, mutual enmity between the PML-N and the MQM is likely to prevent the MQM from supporting a no-confidence motion in Gilani which could propel Sharif’s party to power.

Though some experts believe a weakened civilian government bodes well for the aspirations of Pakistan’s military establishment, which has
governed the country for roughly half of its existence, Mr. Sabzwari, the MQM official, feels differently.

“Poor policy makes life miserable for the people. It is the duty of us politicians to give democracy a chance," he says, "but if we can't govern, people are going to question it.”

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