ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's prime minister, scrambling to keep his party's grip on power, sought support from opposition leaders Monday following the defection of a key coalition partner that threatens to bring down the government.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the second largest party in the ruling coalition, said Sunday it would join the opposition, leaving Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani's government short of majority support in parliament.
The political crisis could distract the government from its alliance with the U.S. against Islamist militants in neighboring Afghanistan, though security is largely the purview of the powerful military. But the turmoil also all but guarantees lawmakers will make no progress anytime soon on solving the critical economic problems that have forced the country to rely on $11 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.
For ordinary Pakistanis, it's inflation, chronic power outages and other daily hardships that are the biggest concern. Failure to make gains on such domestic issues does not bode well for the long-term stability of this impoverished, nuclear-armed nation.
On New Year's eve, Gilani's government announced hikes in gas and heating oil prices, angering many — and giving the MQM another reason to part ways with the ruling Pakistan People's Party.
"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.
The party on Monday filed an application to formally switch to the opposition. Its Cabinet ministers already tendered their resignations last week. Another, smaller party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam, announced in December it would switch to the opposition and its application is under process. Without the two, the ruling coalition will fall short of the 172 seats needed to keep a majority.
Ruling party leaders said they were trying to work out their differences with the MQM, and Gilani said he was confident the government could maintain its majority.
The prime minister met with the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q on Monday afternoon. Earlier in the day, state-run Pakistan Television said the prime minister held talks with a top official in the leading opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
If Gilani's government cannot retain its majority coalition or cobble together a new one, it could face a no-confidence vote and midterm elections. Analysts said the ruling party had only weeks, if not days, to shore up support and prevent the government's collapse.
However, poor relations between the MQM and the PML-N, headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, give the ruling party some breathing space because the opposition could be too fractured to oust the prime minister.
Sharif's party also would be loath to try to take the reins of a new government at such a difficult time, said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a political analyst.
The IMF has demanded that Pakistan significantly reform its economy, including slashing 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. Many analysts speculate the parties could be using the crisis as a tactic to win concessions from the ruling party.
The MQM even raised the possibility on Monday that it might quit its partnership with the PPP in the coalition that governs Sindh province, putting even more pressure on the ruling party.
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."
The inflation rate in Pakistan is above 15 percent, according to government statistics, and the poorest are feeling the pain most.
Tahir Khan, 25, a laborer in the northwest city of Peshawar, said it has become harder to feed his family of six.
"I do not care what one leader says about the other. I am more concerned which leader gives us what," he said.
The PPP 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.
The PML-N 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 is 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.
One unclear factor is where the 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 the PML-N's Sharif, who was then prime minister, in a coup in 1999. But Kayani has not indicated any interest in staging a coup if the current government is toppled.
Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Khalid Tanveer in Multan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.