Pakistan’s ruling party is struggling to keep its grip on power after a coalition partner said it would join the opposition and threatened to bring the government down.
The political crisis all but guarantees politicians will make no progress anytime soon on solving the critical economic problems that have forced the country to rely on £7 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.
The political posturing could also distract the government from its alliance with the US against Islamist militancy, though security is largely down to the powerful military.
For ordinary Pakistanis, however, it is the rising inflation, chronic power outages and other daily hardships that are the most important issue.
On New Year’s Eve, the government announced hikes in petrol, diesel and kerosene prices, angering many – and giving the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (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 had already said it was quitting the cabinet last week.
Another, smaller party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam, announced in December it would switch to the opposition. Without the two, the ruling coalition will fall short of the 172 seats needed to keep a majority.
Ruling party leaders said they are trying to work out their differences with the MQM, and prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said he is confident the government can maintain its majority. But if the government cannot hold together its majority coalition or form a new one, it could face a no-confidence vote and mid-term elections.
Analysts said the ruling party has only weeks, if not days, to try to prevent the government’s collapse.
Poor relations between the MQM and the main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N, give the ruling party some breathing space.