Pakistan's coalition in turmoil after junior partner walks out

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani yesterday scrambled to shore up support for his crumbling coalition and stave off attempts to oust him after a junior partner walked out, stripping the coalition of its majority.

The government has been plunged into political turmoil after the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) quit the cabinet and retreated to the opposition. Combined with the earlier departure of Pakistan's largest religious party, the ruling coalition has been reduced to a minority.

Mr Gilani has been in crisis talks, hastening from one opposition leader to the next. He has been trying to lure them into government, and failing that, asking they at least don't oust him through a vote of no confidence. The effort appeared to yield some dividends yesterday, with neither of the two largest opposition parties signalling their intent to topple the government.

However security analysts fear that the instability will divert attention from the pressing fight against Islamist militancy.

Political instability will make it difficulty to build support for future military offensives. A planned advance into North Waziristan, the tribal area along the Afghan border that poses the biggest threat both to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will likely be further delayed. Washington has long urged Islamabad to take action there.

Beyond its anti-Taliban campaign, the greatest worry facing this nuclear-armed Muslim nation is its dire economy. Pakistan is dependent on an $11.3bn (£7.3bn) IMF loan that it is struggling to repay. Last summer's floods are estimated to have cost $10bn in damage. And as it is forced to cut subsidies, the government's unpopularity is likely to grow.

Given such vulnerability, the obvious beneficiary is the powerful military establishment. As the civilians have shed popularity, Pakistan's generals have quietly clawed back much of the power they lost when the former dictator General Pervez Musharraf stepped down. Now, analysts say, matters of national security, foreign policy and even economic policy have fallen back under the army's control. In the months ahead, the army is likely to assert its backstage dominance further.

Shujaat Hussain, the leader of the second largest opposition party, said that his party was going to offer Mr Gilani support on "one condition". "That condition is that the real issues of the people are addressed," he added. But Mr Hussain's Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam is yet to say whether it will fortify the government's ranks.

The Prime Minister, however, remained confident. "The government will last," Mr Gilani told reporters. Asked if it could survive without the MQM, he replied: "Without everyone." His confidence was at odds with the mood elsewhere in Islamabad. "This government has six weeks to decide whether it wants to survive," said an opposition parliamentarian, Khawaja Saad Rafique.

But it is unlikely that Mr Gilani will have to vacate the Prime Minister's hilltop mansion. "The coalition may not survive, but the government will," said Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The opposition is riven by fierce divisions and is unlikely to cohere into an alternative force. "We don't want to inherit this mess," said an opposition leader. "It's better for us that we wait until the next election." An election is due in 2012, but could happen some time next year.

Meanwhile, the prospect is of a weak minority government, constantly battling for its survival and distracted from its duties. "It will obviously affect governance," said Mr Ahsan. A sense of the government's fragility was in evidence yesterday, as opponents united against petrol price hikes. That pressure is likely to intensify, possibly forcing another climbdown. The PPP-led government has already shelved plans to broaden its tax base through a revised general sales tax.

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