ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's U.S.-allied ruling party suffered a fresh blow to its fragile hold on power Tuesday when a coalition partner said it will quit the cabinet, deepening the nation's political turmoil and potentially distracting Islamabad from helping American forces target militants.
New elections could lead to the emergence of a government not as friendly to U.S. interests and less vocal in opposing the Taliban.
Still, even if the government changes — a prospect that is not at all certain — the country's new leaders will be faced with the same seemingly intractable challenges as their predecessors: a feeble economy, chronic power shortages and rebuilding after this year's horrendous flooding.
And they will have to navigate the delicate partnership between their 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.
The current government "is not only too weak to meet the U.S.'s short-term priorities even if it wanted to, it's already too weak to meets the long-term priorities that would give Pakistan stability," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Cordesman said the stability of a nuclear weapons-armed Pakistan is a higher strategic priority for the U.S. than the future of Afghanistan. If Pakistan came under Islamist extremist rule, it would be far more threatening as an al-Qaida sanctuary than Afghanistan ever could be, he said.
The decision Tuesday by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to leave the Cabinet showed the willingness of members of the governing coalition to challenge the unpopular, ruling Pakistan People's Party.
The MQM, a secular party with its powerbase in the southern port city of Karachi, said it will pull its two ministers, though it insisted it was not yet joining the opposition. The move came days after the Jamiat Ulema Islam announced it was leaving to join the opposition.
Analysts said the two parties are aware of the PPP's unpopularity and are positioning themselves for potential early elections.
"If the government was doing very well, and it was thought the government these parties were part of was doing very well, I don't think they would part ways," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a leading Pakistani political expert.
The PPP won the most seats in elections in February 2008 weeks after its leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, won the presidency months later after forcing former military ruler Pervez Musharraf to quit the post.
But enthusiasm for the PPP-led government has faded as Pakistan's problems have worsened.
The country's economy is subsisting on $11 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund. Electricity shortages plague Pakistani homes and businesses. The massive floods of 2010 only made things worse.
Despite several army offensives, Islamist militants still sow chaos in the country — a suicide bomb on Saturday killed nearly 50 people. The government has struggled to re-establish local administrations in regions where the army has pushed out the militants.
And the U.S. is still using drone-fired missile strikes against militant targets in Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, a practice that has enraged many Pakistanis. U.S. officials rarely discuss the program, but have privately said it is very accurate and kills mostly militants.
Three such strikes on Tuesday killed at least 17 people, most of them alleged militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to speak on the record. The second strike killed at least two people retrieving bodies.
The officials said some of the people killed may have been civilians, though Taliban fighters are known to quickly retrieve comrades' bodies.
The PPP, meanwhile, has struggled to persuade the opposition and some of its allies to agree to reforms — such as changes to tax laws demanded by international donors or reforming blasphemy laws that are often abused by Muslim extremists to marginalize religious minorities.
Still, both parties could patch up differences with the PPP if they get some concessions. The MQM's primary concern, for example, is keeping its power in Karachi, a massive city of more than 16 million, analysts said.
Farooq Sattar, one of the two MQM Cabinet ministers, submitted his resignation via fax from London late Tuesday.
Sattar insisted that his party was unhappy with the lack of progress in solving Pakistan's problems and that it felt ignored by the PPP. He said the MQM is not interested in seeing the government fall.
JUI leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani should resign or be removed by Zardari, something analysts said the president might agree to. Rehman said Gilani had exacerbated tensions within the governing coalition.
Zardari's party was lobbying on Tuesday to prevent the MQM from leaving the coalition.
If the MQM does shift its 25 seats to the opposition, the ruling coalition will have fewer than the 172 seats needed for a majority in Parliament.
The PPP could seek new allies to form another coalition — or it could end up facing a no-confidence vote in the prime minister and then go before unhappy voters in early elections. Zardari, however, would likely remain in his post as president, which has a five-year term.
Early elections could continue a long-standing pattern in Pakistan where civilian governments do not finish full terms.
If the government does fall, the biggest beneficiary would likely be Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, which would be expected to win the most seats. In recent days, he declared that his main opposition party could bring about a "revolution" in Pakistan, according to local news reports.
The PML-N is more aligned with religious conservatives than the PPP or the MQM, and it has not been as vocal in opposing the Taliban — a position that could cause some discomfort in Washington.
U.S. officials in Islamabad have privately indicated they are not entirely certain where Sharif stands on the two countries' counterterrorism partnership, though the alliance has brought billions in aid to Pakistan.
All of Pakistan's major political parties have officially protested the covert, CIA-run program, but the drones have fired missiles at an unprecedented rate this year. And the U.S. has signaled the attacks will not stop.
"It's not entirely clear that the opposition would go along with what the Obama administration wants to do in Pakistan, notably drone strikes," said Mark Quarterman, director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Quarterman added that the Obama administration has worked hard to cultivate a relationship with the powerful Pakistani military and is also keen on supporting civilian governance and institutions.
"The fall of the government or it just limping along will make that task that much more difficult," he said.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Rasool Dawar in Peshawar and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.