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29 February 2024

Pakistan's PM raises hopes of government survival


Pakistan's beleaguered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani won tentative support at crisis talks with political opponents on Monday, raising hopes that his government can stave off imminent collapse.

The political turmoil was sparked on Sunday when coalition partner the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) quit the government to join the opposition.

The move severed the government's majority at a time of economic meltdown and increasing US pressure on Pakistan to do more to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

No entirely civilian government in Pakistan has managed to complete a full term in office and with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leading a majority of 160 seats in the 342-member national assembly, horse trading began immediately.

Although he is not bound to seek a vote of confidence in parliament, Gilani could face serious problems in passing legislation and any failure to get the budget adopted in June could force snap elections.

Pakistan has managed to stave off bankruptcy thanks to a 2008 IMF rescue package, but after catastrophic flooding last summer there are fears that Islamabad cannot meet key targets on inflation and budget deficit levels.

Gilani spent Monday locked in talks with the Pakistan Muslim League Qaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), whose 50 lawmakers could prop up the government, and the brother of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif who left the coalition in 2008.

"They will call their party meeting tomorrow and consult. It was agreed that parliament and democracy will be strengthened and no step will be taken which could derail democracy," an upbeat Gilani said of the PML-Q meeting.

President Asif Ali Zardari is chairman of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party and spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP that the presidency was still confident "that the problem will be solved and MQM's concerns addressed".

PML-Q leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said he would consult his party, but indicated that it could come to the prime minister's rescue.

"We will support them on one condition that they will solve the problems being faced by the people of Pakistan.

"We do not want to blackmail them. We talked about all issues namely the reformed general sales tax bill, inflation, unemployment and the anti-blasphemy law," he told reporters after the meeting in Lahore.

The MQM said its 25 lawmakers moved onto the opposition benches in protest at the government's nine percent increase in petrol prices, inflation and record on corruption, but has left open the door to supporting it in the future.

"We will support anyone, including the present government, who withdraws the increased oil prices and offers a package to provide relief to the people," said MQM regional Sindh cabinet minister for health, Saghir Ahmed.

The prospect of the opposition overcoming serious divisions and tabling a no-confidence vote that could force early elections depends on former prime minister Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party.

Gilani met Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab province, but the party stopped short Monday of calling outright for a vote.

"This is the most difficult time in Pakistan's history. We should not make it a media circus," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a senior PML-N leader.

"We have said we will not destabilise them, but we won't lend them any support after they lost their majority due to corruption and incompetence."

Pakistan's powerful military establishment, which has staged three coups and ruled the country for more than half its existence, is reputedly not seeking a political role under current army chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani.

"They wouldn't like the government to be destabilised and must be watching the developments very closely and studying the alternatives," said retired lieutenant general Talat Masood, who is now an analyst.

"But I don't think they would like to take over because that would invoke sanctions, which would be detrimental, as they are reliant on military assistance from the United States which would stop."

Political analysts say the government's survival depends on how the parties react, believing that few want to take on the mantle of Pakistan's myriad problems prematurely.

"If nobody presents a no-confidence motion, than legally there is no need for early elections," analyst Shafqat Mahmood told AFP.