- Associated Press - Monday, January 3, 2011

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s prime minister tried Monday to keep his ruling coalition in power after a key party said it was defecting to the opposition, leaving the government without majority support in parliament.

The loss of the second-largest party in the coalition creates new political turmoil that could provide another excuse to put off a military offensive against Taliban and al Qaeda militants — something the U.S. has been pushing its allies in the Pakistani government to do. Security, however, is largely the purview of Pakistan’s powerful military.

The shift in the political landscape is not expected to lead to a collapse of the fragile government. But any additional instability could work against U.S. objectives for the war at a time when cutting the Taliban off inside Pakistan is critical for any lasting progress in Afghanistan.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement said Sunday it was joining the opposition because of fuel price hikes, inflation and the generally poor performance of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The government announced hikes in gas and heating oil prices on New Year’s Eve.

“The petrol bomb the government has dropped on the people of Pakistan has forced our party to part ways with such insane decisions,” said Faisal Subzwari, an MQM leader.

MQM Cabinet ministers already tendered their resignations last week. Another, smaller party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam, announced in December it would switch to the opposition.

Without the two, the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s ruling coalition will fall about a dozen seats short the 172 seats needed for a majority in the 342-member parliament. That means the fractured opposition parties — if they can work together — could sponsor a no-confidence vote in Mr. Gilani. If it passes by a majority, it would remove Mr. Gilani from office and possibly trigger early elections.

Analysts said Mr. Gilani had only weeks, if not days, to keep his coalition intact or scrape together a new one. However, he appeared to have a bit of breathing room because there it is unlikely the fragmented opposition will be able to close ranks and oust Mr. Gilani in a no-confidence vote.

Analysts says MQM may merely be trying to win concessions from the ruling party that would mainly increase its already significant power in the southern port city of Karachi.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is the head of the PPP and his position as president would likely be safe even if the party loses its majority in parliament. Analysts speculated that Mr. Zardari might be willing to replace Mr. Gilani with a prime minister more acceptable to other parties to avoid the PPP’s losing power. But Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar said Monday the president backs Mr. Gilani and won’t abandon him.

It is not clear where Pakistan’s powerful military stands on the latest political wrangling. Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is reported to be unhappy with the current leadership, but not enthusiastic about its possible replacement. The army, under the leadership of retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999. But Gen. Kayani has not indicated any interest in staging a coup if the current government is toppled.

The upheaval is also likely to distract lawmakers from focusing on economic problems that have frustrated ordinary Pakistanis and forced the country to rely on $11 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

With his job on the line, Mr. Gilani was scrambling to secure the support of opposition groups to avoid a no-confidence vote. He met with representatives of the biggest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, as well the second largest opposition group, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q. It was not clear whether he made any headway.

One opposition leader said his party had nothing against the prime minister, but stressed that it could only support Mr. Gilani’s government if it improved its performance.

“Today we gave support with a condition, and that condition is the real issues of the people are addressed,” said Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q.

PML-N leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan avoided directly addressing whether his faction would support a no-confidence vote.

“We will not destabilize this government, but if it loses its majority, we will not support it,” he said. “We will in no way give it a shoulder.”

The PML-N, headed by former Prime Minister Sharif, holds the second largest number of seats in parliament and is believed to be the most popular party in the country. It is more aligned with religious conservatives than the PPP and has not been as vocal in opposing the Taliban — a position that could cause some discomfort in Washington, which needs Pakistan’s help in ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

The PML-N would likely be loath to take the reins of a new government at such a difficult time.

The IMF has demanded that Pakistan significantly reform its economy, including deep cuts to its deficit, in order to keep the loan program going. The international assistance took on added importance after the massive floods of late 2010 that affected some 20 million people.

But the economic reforms, notably a revised general sales tax, are unpopular and have given the opposition — as well as the MQM and the JUI — something to rail against.

The lack of progress and political bickering has upset many Pakistanis.

“There is no electricity, no gas, no jobs and they are fighting one another,” said Arif Fasiullah, 35, of the central city of Multan, in a recent interview. “They do not pass any legislation. They just do dirty politics.”

Pakistan’s inflation rate is above 15 percent annually, according to government statistics, and the poorest are feeling the pain most.

The People’s Party took power in February 2008 in elections that brought Pakistan out of nearly a decade of military rule. It rode to power on a wave of sympathy after its leader, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated.

But its popularity has slipped as Pakistan has grappled with severe economic problems and frequent militant attacks.

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Khalid Tanveer in Multan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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