Pakistan's governing coalition splits, risking terrorism fight

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan _Pakistan was thrown into political turmoil Sunday after a coalition partner quit the government, leaving a minority administration that will struggle to survive.

Political instability likely will take the government’s focus off the fight against extremism and leave it weak. Pakistan’s co-operation is believed to be vital in battling al Qaida and in finding a solution for Afghanistan. Washington has worked hard to build a close relationship with Asif Zardari's pro-Western government and showered it with billions of dollars of aid.

Under Zardari’s government, Pakistan for the first time launched full-blown operations against Taliban extremists in the northwest of the country, working with the military. However, the military is thought to lack trust in Zardari’s government and has kept a tight hold on directing security and foreign policy.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) pulled out of President Asif Zardari’s government, leaving it 12 seats short of a majority in a 342-seat parliament. The MQM cited a hike in gasoline prices and new taxation measures as the reason for joining the opposition.

“Right at the start of the new year the government has raised the prices of petrol (gasoline) and kerosene oil, which is unbearable for the people who are already under pressure from the already high prices,” the MQM said in a statement.

Many in Pakistan will see the hand of the country’s powerful military behind the shakeup. The MQM, which was the second biggest party in the coalition, is reputedly close to the military establishment. The current army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has repeatedly indicated that he will not intervene in politics. However, historically, the military has worked behind the scenes to bring a premature end to the terms of civilian governments and also periodically staged coups.

“This is yet another move by the establishment to keep politics and democracy destabilised,” said Kamran Shafi, a columnist with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. “It benefits them (the military) to prove that politicians are no good. It is just heart-breaking.”

The loss of a parliamentary majority doesn't automatically trigger new elections. That would require a no-confidence motion being passed in parliament. Much now depends on opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been saying that he will not support moves to undermine democracy.

Sharif’s party appeared to suggest late Sunday that it will not gang up against the government in any vote of no confidence, removing the immediate threat to the administration’s survival. But some believe that Sharif may eventually be tempted to exploit the situation, believing that he would sweep fresh elections.

Zardari’s pro-Western government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, came to power after elections in February 2008, which had ended the latest period of military rule. Massive foreign aid has flowed to Pakistan since the restoration of democracy, but the administration is accused of poor governance and corruption.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani asserted to reporters: “The government will stay. Even without everyone (coalition partners), the government will stay.”

The MQM and the Pakistan Peoples Party were always uncomfortable partners, as they are fierce rivals for power in the southern province of Sindh.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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