KARACHI — The second largest party in Pakistan’s ruling coalition Sunday quit the government to join the opposition, destabilizing the US ally in the war on Al-Qaeda and threatening to paralyze business of state.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) made the announcement days after its two federal cabinet ministers resigned, abandoning crisis talks with the main ruling Pakistan People’s Party that had scrambled to keep them on board.
An administration that took power less than three years ago following elections has now lost its majority in parliament and faces possible collapse if the opposition unites to pass a vote of no-confidence.
“We have decided to sit on opposition benches because the government has not done anything to address the issues we have been protesting about,” MQM stalwart Faisal Sabzwari told AFP.
MQM has long been at odds with unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP over political violence in Karachi, tax reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund, corruption and crippling inflation.
Without MQM’s 25 seats, the PPP’s coalition numbers 160 seats in the 342-member national assembly, 12 short of the 172 required for a majority.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani tried to appear calm on live television, telling journalists: “The government is not going to fall.”
“I was unanimously elected, all parties voted for me in national assembly. We have contacts with all parties,” Gilani said, indicating that horse-trading to shore up a new coalition was already underway.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said he was confident the MQM would return to the ruling coalition, but an adamant Sabzwari said: “The government has not listened to our demands to control inflation and corruption and it is bent upon burdening them with new tax.”
MQM remains in the coalition in the southern province of Sindh, of which Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi and economic hub is the capital and where the party’s support is rooted in the Urdu-speaking majority.
MQM’s Farooq Sattar, minister for overseas Pakistanis, and ports and shipping minister Babar Ghauri last week submitted their resignations, but the party had stopped short of joining the opposition.
PPP luminaries had appeared publicly confident of stitching up a deal to keep MQM on board, but analysts said late Sunday that the party had decided it no longer wanted to be implicated in an increasingly unpopular government.
All eyes will now turn to Pakistan’s main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, that would need to support any possible parliamentary vote of no-confidence.
“It is their moral duty now to prove their majority in the national assembly,” PML-N spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said of the government.
“The prime minister should take fresh vote of confidence from the parliament,” he said.
Political analyst Hasan Askari said: “The government runs into serious problems with the exit of MQM… The basic issue for the government now is survival.”
Yet he doubted any immediate prospect of a vote of no-confidence saying that Sharif appeared unwilling to bring down the government immediately and face responsibility for the country’s myriad crises.
Pakistan is grappling with a depressed economy, the after-effects of devastating floods that hit 21 million people last summer and Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked sanctuaries in its northwest on the Afghan border.
“That (a vote of no-confidence) is not going to happen for the time being. Nawaz Sharif is not in favor and the opposition is divided,” said Askari.
Troubled relations between Sharif’s party and the MQM gives the government breathing space of at least three to four weeks, analysts estimate, to stitch together a new majority.
“The government will try to win over small groups so you’ll see lots of politicking,” said Askari.
One of those parties set to be wooed could be Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUIF), the country’s most prominent religious party that took seven lawmakers out of government on December 14 after Gilani sacked one of its ministers.