Pakistan's coalition averts crisis with a U-turn

Pakistan's political crisis eased yesterday as a junior coalition partner said that it was rejoining the government, restoring its slim majority and averting any attempts to oust the Prime Minister.

But the decision has come at a cost, as the government performed another climbdown on economic reforms aimed at generating revenue it desperately needs to satisfy its creditors at the IMF.

"Our unity will benefit both the country and the national interest," said the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, after a meeting at the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)'s headquarters. "We can steer the country out of this storm."

The MQM, a secular middle-class party that dominates Karachi, said its parliamentarians would return to the government benches, but will not resume their roles in the cabinet. The move allows it to retain leverage. The MQM's disputes with the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari have fitfully risen to a head over violence in Karachi and proposed economic reforms.

Mr Zardari's aides insist that there never was any threat to the government. "Another storm in a teacup over, until the next one," said one. Critics counter that, while the government will remain, bouts of crisis will see it struggle and it will be vulnerable to opponents.

The IMF criticised the decision to restore a subsidy on fuel prices, warning it would deepen Pakistan's deficit. The government's move comes days after it decided to shelve plans to introduce a general sales tax.

Meanwhile, the PPP has made further concessions to its right-wing critics. After the brutal assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who spoke out against the prejudicial blasphemy laws, a parade of ministers have said that they will not be proposing any amendment to these laws.

Chillingly, Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, said: "If someone dishonours Islam in front of me, I will shoot him dead." Sherry Rehman, a liberal lawmaker who proposed amendments to the law to ensure that minorities are protected, is being leaned on to withdraw her bill. Since Mr Taseer's murder, Ms Rehman has been confined to her home and urged to leave the country. Yesterday, the prayer leader at the largest mosque in south Karachi declared her a non-Muslim and "worthy of killing". Fundamentalist groups have planned a rally and a march against her. The PPP she belongs to remains silent.

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