Pakistani government in dire straits

Pakistan’s prime minister on Monday
tried 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 Sunday it would join the
opposition because of fuel price hikes, inflation and the ruling Pakistan
People’s Party’s general poor performance.

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 sponsor 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 could distract
the government from its counterterrorism alliance with the US, which wants
Pakistan to crack down on al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents on its soil, though
security is largely the purview of Pakistan’s powerful military. The turmoil
also all but guarantees lawmakers will make no progress anytime soon on solving
the economic problems that have frustrated ordinary Pakistanis and forced the
country to rely on $11 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

With his job on the line, Mr. Gilani
was scrambling Monday 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 Mr. Gilani
had made any headway as of late Monday afternoon. One opposition leader said
his party had nothing against the prime minister, but stressed that it could
only support Mr. 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.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
is the head of the People’s Party.

His position as president would
likely be safe even if the People’s Party loses its majority in Parliament, but
to avoid the party’s loss of power, analysts said, President Zardari may be
willing to replace Mr. Gilani with a prime minister more acceptable to the
other parties. There have been occasional reports of rifts between Mr. Gilani
and President Zardari, though their offices have
denied it.

The MQM said Sunday it was quitting
the ruling coalition after the government announced hikes in gas and heating
oil prices on New Year’s Eve.