- Associated Press - Sunday, January 2, 2011

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The second largest party in Pakistan‘s ruling coalition said Sunday it is quitting the government and joining the opposition, depriving the country’s pro-U.S. government of a parliamentary majority and threatening its future existence.

It was not immediately clear whether the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s move will prompt the downfall of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s government. But it is almost certain to distract Pakistani officials at a time when the United States is pushing Pakistan to step up cooperation in turning around the war in neighboring Afghanistan, and a new government could be less friendly to U.S. interests and less vocal in opposing the Taliban.

The MQM decided to withdraw from the ruling coalition because of the government’s poor performance in addressing problems such as rising inflation, as well as the corruption weighing down average Pakistanis, said MQM lawmaker Haider Abbas Rizvi.

The move follows the party’s decision last week to pull its ministers from the Cabinet.

“We are doing it for the sake of common men,” Mr. Rizvi said.

But some analysts have speculated that the MQM’s behavior has been driven by self-interest rather than public good, leaving open the possibility that the government still could find a way to lure the party back by offering the right concessions. The MQM historically has been most focused on its level of control in the southern port city of Karachi.

“The government will continue to strive to keep the coalition intact and pursue national reconciliation,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. “We understand the MQM’s political right to sit on the opposition benches, but we hope that they will review their decision.”

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed confidence that the ruling Pakistan People’s Party could avert a crisis, telling reporters in the eastern city of Lahore that “the government will remain intact; it will not fall.”

If the MQM goes through with its threat of shifting its 25 seats to the opposition, the ruling coalition will have fewer than the 172 seats needed for a majority in Parliament.

Another coalition partner, the Jamiat Ulema Islam party, also withdrew from the Cabinet and threatened to shift its seven seats to the opposition in recent days if Mr. Zardari didn’t sack the prime minister.

According to the Pakistani Constitution, members representing 20 percent of the seats in Parliament can sponsor a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. If the measure is passed by a majority of Parliament, the prime minister ceases to hold office.

Associated Press writer Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.