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Key party pulls out of Pakistan's ruling coalition

In this photo taken Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pauses during a meeting with the Pakistani National Disaster Management Authority, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan's U.S.-allied ruling party scrambled on Wednesday to keep its fragile coalition government in power as its senior leaders met with two dissident political partners, urging them to rejoin the Cabinet, a leader of one of the disgruntled parties, however, reiterated demands that the prime minister quit or be fired. In this photo taken Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pauses during a meeting with the Pakistani National Disaster Management Authority, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan's U.S.-allied ruling party scrambled on Wednesday to keep its fragile coalition government in power as its senior leaders met with two dissident political partners, urging them to rejoin the Cabinet, a leader of one of the disgruntled parties, however, reiterated demands that the prime minister quit or be fired. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
By Asif Shahzad
Associated Press / January 2, 2011

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ISLAMABAD—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 throwing its future into doubt.

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 U.S. is pushing Islamabad to do more to help turn around the war in neighboring Afghanistan. It also raises the possibility of a new government that could be less friendly to U.S. interests and less vocal in opposing the Taliban.

The MQM opted to withdraw from the ruling coalition because of the government's poor performance in combating problems like rising inflation and the corruption weighing down average Pakistanis, said MQM lawmaker Haider Abbas Rizvi.

"We are doing it for the sake of common men," Rizvi said. The party already pulled its ministers from the Cabinet last week.

Prime Minister Gilani sought to downplay the threat to his government from the defection, and expressed confidence that the ruling Pakistan People's Party could avert a crisis. "The government will remain intact, it will not fall," he told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.

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 could still find a way to lure the party back by offering the right concessions. The MQM has historically 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, who is also co-chairman of the PPP. "We understand the MQM's political right to sit on the opposition benches, but we hope that they will review their decision."

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 recently withdrew from the Cabinet and threatened to shift its eight seats to the opposition if Zardari didn't sack the prime minister.

Analysts have speculated the two groups could be distancing themselves from the unpopular ruling party in anticipation of the next set of parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2013 but could take place earlier if called by the prime minister.

The PPP took power in February 2008, but its popularity has slipped as Pakistan has grappled with severe economic problems and frequent militant attacks.

If the government cannot hold together its majority coalition or form a new one, it could face a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Zardari, however, would likely remain in his post as president, which has a five-year term.

According to Pakistan's constitution, members representing 20 percent of the seats in parliament can sponsor a vote of no-confidence in the premier. If the measure is passed by a majority of parliament, the prime minister is booted from office.

The most important player in this scenario would be the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which holds the second largest number of seats in parliament, 89. The PML-N 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.

But it could be difficult for the MQM to enlist the PML-N's support for a no-confidence vote because the two parties have clashed politically.

Khawaja Asif, a member of PML-N said his party would have trouble forming a coalition with MQM and other possible partners in parliament.

"If we have to sleep with the MQM and the PML-Q and the JUI, then God help us, we are doomed," said Asif. "We are in a very tricky situation. Everybody wants the People's Party to go. But what's next?"

The PML-N would likely prefer to wait until the next round of parliamentary elections, in which it would be expected to win the most seats, said Asif.

But any future government would end up facing the same seemingly intractable challenges as its predecessor: a feeble economy, chronic power shortages and rebuilding after this year's horrendous flooding.

It will also have to navigate the delicate partnership between the Pakistani military -- the nation's most powerful institution -- and the U.S., which provides billions in aid to target al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who use Pakistani territory to plan attacks on Western troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writer Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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