Pakistani president vows support for embattled Prime Minister
ISLAMABAD - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari threw his weight on Monday behind beleaguered Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani against any attempts to destabilise his government after a key partner quit the ruling coalition.
The opposition has not yet sought a no-confidence vote against Gilani in parliament but analysts said that was the biggest worry for the prime minister as he scrambled to shore up support.
Gilani’s government lost its parliamentary majority on Sunday when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) announced it would go into opposition over government fuel price policies that it said were “unbearable” for Pakistanis.
The political upheaval comes at a time when the United States has increased pressure on Pakistan to go after Islamist militant groups to help it turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan.
It adds to the Pakistani government’s problems at home as it struggles to meet demands placed on it by the International Monetary Fund, including politically sensitive tax reforms, in return for the remaining tranches of an $11 billion loan.
“(Zardari) has full confidence in Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and solidly stands behind him in foiling any attempt to destabilise the coalition government,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.
The president and prime minister are from the same political party and both would be loath to see an early general election.
The country’s main stock index ended 1.44 percent lower, reflecting concerns over the stability of the government, traders said.
The fall in the Karachi Stock Exchange contrasted with a rise in stocks elsewhere in Asia. The MSCI index of Asian shares outside of Japan rose 0.9 percent on Monday, although several markets were closed for a holiday.
The government is 12 seats short of the number it would need to survive a no-confidence vote.
“From this point onward, the government will be on crutches. The no-confidence vote is a threat for it,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
Many Pakistanis are fed up with their civilian leaders.
Labourer Mohammad Haider Ali said his first choice would be cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
“If Imran Khan cannot come, then martial law should come. General (Ashfaq) Kayani, he would be best of all ... a big stick!,” he said, referring to the army chief and expressing a desire for perceived decisive military leadership.
Analysts say they do not expect the military to intervene, although that could not be ruled out if the situation degenerated into chaos. The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history.
The MQM has not taken any decision on a vote on the government, party leader Faisal Subzwari told Reuters. The party said its senators had submitted a motion seeking a rollback of fuel price rises.
Since January 1, the petrol price has risen by 9 percent, adding to inflationary pressure in a country where frustration is spreading over poverty, corruption and power cuts.
While anger over fuel prices was the immediate factor, the MQM has been complaining for months that the government was not doing enough to improve security in its home base of Karachi, Pakistan’s financial capital and biggest city.
If the political crisis deteriorates, an early election may be called. Gilani has been trying to win the support of opposition leaders to try and save the ruling alliance.
The MQM pullout came after Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a pro-Taliban religious party, quit the coalition last month and went into opposition because Gilani sacked one of its ministers.
The party repeated its call for Gilani’s resignation and said it ruled out rejoining the coalition.
“Gilani has no moral grounds to stay in power. He should step down himself instead of someone else throwing him out,” said deputy party leader Abdul Ghafoor Haideri.
While analysts doubt that Gilani would see out his term, which ends in 2013, the chances of the opposition forming a new ruling alliance are slim because it is fractured.
The political paralysis raises fresh questions about the government’s ability to push through reforms that the IMF says are necessary to avoid an economic meltdown.
Even before the latest setback, the government faced opposition from almost all political parties, including the MQM, to its bid to implement a reformed general sales tax (RGST) — a key condition for the possible release of the sixth IMF tranche.