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Pakistan's Government Faces Its Sternest Test Yet

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani (left) with PML-Q leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain (center) and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi. They may see an advantage in keeping his government afloat.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani (left) with PML-Q leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain (center) and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi. They may see an advantage in keeping his government afloat.

Pakistan's beleaguered government is facing yet another crisis -- the most serious since the current cabinet came to power in March 2008.

But despite the heavy blow of the withdrawal of erstwhile coalition partners Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) and Muttahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Pakistan People's Party-led government seems likely to maintain its hold on power. The opposition is too fragmented to form a solid threat and there are other small players eager to cut a deal with the PPP for a share of power.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's coalition now controls 163 members of the 342-seat parliament, just short of the 172 needed to continue governing. He is in intense talks with the Nawaz and Quaid factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML).

The Nawaz faction (PML-N) is the second-largest group in the legislature, with 91 deputies. It is followed by the Quaid faction (PML-Q), with 50 members. PML-Q seems eager to join up with the government at this point, mainly because it does not see any other way of gaining power even if there is another general election.

The PML-N, on the other hand, is critical of the current government's policies and has been sharply critical from time to time. However, it has refrained from pulling the rug out from under the government entirely because it wants to see the democratic process play out and it hopes for a breakthrough victory in the next elections.

No Opposition Forming

Though the loss of MQM and JUI-F has destabilized the government, those two parties control only 33 members of parliament together, and so have no chance of forming a strong alternative opposition. Neither PML-N nor PML-Q (which, incidentally, are also at odds with one another) is likely to form a front with MQM or JUI-F.

Islamabad-based political analyst Salim Safi says the future of the government is now in the hands of the PML-N and PML-Q. "The existing set-up will continue if either of the two decides to support the government," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "However, the prime minister will be unable to stay the course if the expected support is not extended."

However, the situation is also complex for the opposition, which seems unable to join hands against the PPP-led government. The PML-N and PML-Q have long been at loggerheads, while the PML-N has recently been in a mudslinging match with MQM, the party that is purportedly leading the opposition.

Political analyst Hassan Askari says the PML-N does not want the collapse of the current government because it would merely be replaced by another coalition, most likely with the support of groups like the MQM and JUI-F.

"Although, the government has become weak, the PML-N would not support a no-confidence motion against the prime minister," Askari notes.

Army Intervention Possible?

Another political analyst, Nazeer Najee, fears that the destabilization of the existing government could bring the system under threat. His comment seems to be a hint at a possible intervention by the army.

However, Safi dismisses such fears as mere conspiracy theories that are always found in Pakistani media and political circles. He says the direct intervention of the army is unlikely because, unlike in the past, even the opposition parties are now seriously averse to developments of that kind.

"The main opposition party, the PML-N, is against the imposition of martial law," Safi says. "At the same time, the establishment [military] is also fearing a backlash from the independent media and the judiciary. Hence, there is little chance of direct intervention from the military."

However, Safi does not rule out eventual army intervention if the deadlock drags on. "An indirect intervention from the army could be the last resort if the situation persists and the politicians fail to reach a settlement," he says.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL