Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani faces the difficult task of restoring his government's majority after a key coalition partner went into opposition.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) announced its decision to leave the government on January 2, leaving Gilani scrambling to forge new alliances amid widespread concerns about recent fuel price hikes and other economic policies, as well as calls for him to face a parliamentary vote of confidence.
MQM Youth Affairs Minister Faisal Sabzwari told journalists in Karachi on January 3 that his party "withdrew from the cabinet on December 27 and today we have decided not to sit on the government benches but to sit with the opposition in the National Assembly as well as in the Senate."
"However, even while sitting in the opposition, we will continue to support the good steps of the government," Sabzwari added.
Gilani met with opposition leaders on January 3 in an effort to come up with the handful of seats needed to restore his majority in the 342-seat National Assembly. Gilani, who co-chairs the ruling Pakistan People's Party, expressed confidence that a solution would be found, telling reporters that "the government is not going to fall."
Searching For Support
Gilani's immediate focus appeared to turn to Pakistan's main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which is headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and whose voice would have tremendous sway on any future vote of confidence in Gilani.
The Pakistani prime minister met with Punjab Province minister Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, but signs indicated that the PML-N was taking a wait-and-see approach on the crisis.
The PML-N’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who is the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, said, "We will not destabilize this government, but if it loses its majority, we will not support it.”
Gilani also met with Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League Qaid-i Azam (PML-Q). After the meeting, Hussain told reporters, "Today we gave support with a condition, and that condition is [that] the real issues of the people are addressed.”
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Gilani's fellow Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman, was less reserved in backing the prime minister’s government.
In a statement, his spokesman said Zardari “has full confidence in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and solidly stands behind him in foiling any attempt to destabilize the coalition government.”
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley downplayed concern that the political turmoil in Pakistan could serve as a distraction or an excuse for the government to not boost efforts to root out Islamic militants in the country.
"We continue to support the Pakistani government. I can't say at this point that the fact that they have this current political situation necessarily distracts them from what else they're doing," he said.
“These things happen in parliamentary systems all the time," Crowley added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to meet on January 4 with Pakistan’s U.S. ambassador, Hussain Haqqani.
Economic Woes And Other Challenges
The MQM's departure from the ruling coalition comes just weeks after religious party Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazl (JUIF) vacated its seven seats after Gilani dismissed one of its ministers. The JUIF has called on Gilani and his cabinet to resign in the wake of the MQM's departure.
The MQM's decision to take its 25 seats to the opposition came after the party's leaders held talks in Karachi on January 2 with President Zardari. In announcing its decision, the MQM cited recent fuel-price hikes and the government's lack of seriousness in addressing its concerns as reasons for leaving the coalition.
Economic woes are also forefront in the minds of average citizens.
"The prices of petrol and sugar have been raised here three times this year," said Gulfam Ahmed, the owner of an electronics shop in the capital.
"There are no signs of any principles at all. It looks like all the (political) leaders are robbers who are just here to swallow everything. And before we know it, they will run away abroad and we will be left high and dry," he said.
Gilani's government led Pakistan through a tumultuous 2010 in which more than 20 million citizens were affected by floods, and in which the government's commitment to countering the Taliban was questioned by its Western allies.
Gilani, along with Zardari and other top officials, was expected to meet in Islamabad later this week with members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. The council was to arrive in Islamabad on January 4, and was expected to discuss its efforts to initiate talks with the Taliban.
with agency material