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Coalition Collapse Sets A New Political Stage In Pakistan

Supporters and activists of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) follow the funeral procession of assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Lahore on January 5.
Supporters and activists of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) follow the funeral procession of assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Lahore on January 5.
So, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has finally decided to bid farewell to its three-year love-hate relationship with the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The hawks in the PML-N -- known for their pro-Taliban stance -- finally prevailed over the party leadership to further humble the beleaguered government for dithering over issues like the Raymond Davis case; the blasphemy laws; the punishment for Salman Qadri, the police guard who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer; and an amnesty for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy.

Though the PPP and PML-N have been at daggers drawn since 1988, their exiled leadership -- the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- came together against a common foe in the last years of Pervez Musharraf's presidency. Although the reason for the seemingly inevitable end of the fragile coalition is not known, all political observers agree the PML-N will not support the PPP if it agrees to grant diplomatic immunity to Davis, a CIA employee based at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore who faces trial for killing two Pakistanis who he claimed tried to rob him.

Tensions were already high when the PML-N remained silent in the wake of the Taseer assassination in January, which none of its leaders openly condemned.

Partners In Punjab

Although the national coalition of the two parties broke down long ago, they remained partners in Punjab, the province that is considered the power center of Pakistan and that has more seats in the legislature than the other three federal units taken together.

Now, however, without citing any reasons (except, of course, "corruption"), the PML-N has decided to expel all PPP ministers from the Punjab cabinet. Analysts believe the PML-N leadership wants to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the Davis case and join with many religious parties in taking the government head-on.

Those religious parties, most of which are not in parliament and who have failed to win mass backing by defending the blasphemy laws and attacking U.S. drone strikes and so on, have latched onto the Davis case with enthusiasm. And, thanks to the Talibanized Pakistani television channels, have gained considerable public support.

'No Room To Play'

The separation from the PML-N will certainly further complicate an already complicated situation for the PPP. The first shot in the new open competition between them was fired by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif on February 27. He accused the government of "intentional" gasoline shortages in the province.

"[President Asif Ali] Zardari must note that there is no room to play any more games," Sharif said, ignoring the fact that his party was hand-in-glove with the PPP just days previously.

Of course, no one can say for certain what will happen, but it is clear that this mounting pressure from the PPP's key political adversary will further paralyze the government's ability to make decisions. Whether or not the situation produces early elections, any persistent crisis could pave the way for forces ready to resort to extra-constitutional measures.

The Davis case, drone strikes, and foreign interference in Pakistan have now risen to the top of the country's political agenda. Since such issues have long been the focus of the conservative religious parties, the ultimate winners in this new scenario could well be the minority Jamat-e Islami party and its allies. The collapse of the coalition between the PML-N and the PPP could signal the end of their primacy on the political stage.

Daud Khattak is acting director of 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