Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. — Photo by AFP

KARACHI: The beleaguered government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Friday received a lifeline when the estranged ally Muttahida Qaumi Movement agreed to return to the coalition though it refused to allow its parliamentarians to rejoin the cabinet.

The concession — which restores Premier Gilani’s slender majority in the 342-member National Assembly -- is thought to be the handiwork of President Asif Ali Zardari, who flew to Lahore to meet the grieving family members of slain Punjab governor Salman Taseer only when behind-the-scene talks ended what was viewed as a make-or-break political crisis.

The crunch talks saw Prime Minister Gilani making his first-ever visit to the MQM headquarters, popularly known as Nine Zero, speaking to Muttahida chief Altaf Hussain for half an hour over phone and be at pains to please his censorious ally.

Earlier, Mr Gilani had a meeting with President Zardari at the Bilawal House.

Accompanied by Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad and Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, the premier chose not to bring along provincial ministers of the Pakistan People’s Party, especially Home Minister Dr Zulfikar Mirza whose ill-concealed verbal attacks on the MQM were blamed for the political crisis which began on Jan 2 when the MQM pulled out of the coalition.

Indeed he told a journalist that tough-talking Dr Mirza, whose tirades are said to be cued by the presidency, would be handled by PPP co-chairman Zardari himself.

However, he said, MQM ministers in Sindh would be given a free hand to discharge their responsibilities.

Mr Gilani told a cheering crowd at Nine Zero that MQM’s opposition to the recent hike in prices of petroleum products was behind the government decision to bring the their rates back to the position of Dec 31.

Fulsome in his praise of Mr Hussain, the prime minister said he had assured the MQM chief that no decision on the much-maligned reformed general sales tax would be taken without first evolving a political consensus.

After being reminded by the chief minister about the commissionerate system bill, the prime minister said the controversial bill would not be tabled unless there was overall agreement on it. Since deep distrust characterises the relationship between the two parties, the MQM kept its support for the coalition iffy so that any government back-pedalling in the future could be promptly retaliated with another walkout.

Sources told Dawn that despite the current bonhomie, the PPP and the MQM had yet to firm up their agreement on the holding of local government elections in Sindh within six months.

Speaking after the prime minister’s speech that contained interesting snippets about his advice to assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto on selecting Karachi for her 2007 homecoming, MQM coordination committee member Raza Haroon said his party, which has 25 seats in the National Assembly and six in the Senate, would continue to agitate for the issues of the common man, such as price hike and law and order.

According to an MQM press release, in a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Gilani, Muttahida chief Altaf Hussain lauded the role played by Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad for reconciliation between the PPP and the MQM.

MQM sources told Dawn that a coordination committee meeting, held simultaneously in Karachi and London, had decided to support the coalition government in the early hours of Friday.

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