ISLAMABAD, Jan 2: The faltering PPP-led coalition government received on Sunday what may prove to be a fatal push when its major coalition partner MQM decided to sit on the opposition benches in parliament, leaving Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as Leader of the House without a majority.
This was the second jolt suffered by the Pakistan People's Party in a fortnight as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman had quit the 32-month-old coalition government over the sacking of its minister against the backdrop of a Haj scam.
“The government will remain intact even if all (coalition partners) leave us,” the prime minister declared unconvincingly while talking to reporters in Lahore at a time when MQM's leaders were announcing the decision of their party's coordination committee in Karachi.
Unlike the JUI-F, the MQM has not come out with any demand of an in-house change, but political and legal experts believe that Mr Gilani has no moral justification to remain the country's chief executive because after losing the majority, his 'minority government' will not be able to perform the basic function of carrying out legislation in the National Assembly as well as in the Senate.
“If a ruling party or coalition is defeated on a bill in the National Assembly or the Senate, it loses the moral ground to continue in the government,” an expert in parliamentary affairs said, hinting that the government might not introduce any law in parliament if it was unsure of its success.
MQM's decision to become a part of the opposition along with its arch rival Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) has made the political crisis more complex as political analysts see little chance of the emergence of a united opposition in view of the tense relationship between the two parties whose leaders last week took their war of words beyond civility while criticising each other's leaders.
However, MNAs from both parties will get their first opportunity on Monday to lodge a joint protest in the National Assembly against the recent decision of the government to increase oil prices when the house meets in the evening after a two-day recess.
On the other hand, some PPP leaders hinted at a before-time adjournment of the house for an indefinite period to avoid embarrassment to their government which planned to bring some more legislative measures in the session that was scheduled to continue till Jan 7.
With the MQM members sitting on opposition benches, for which the party plans to submit applications to the National Assembly speaker and Senate chairman on Monday, PM Gilani will be left with the support of only 160 members — 12 less than the required strength to maintain his position as leader of the house in the 342-member assembly.
Although constitutionally it is not binding upon the prime minister to seek a vote of confidence, MQM's decision puts moral pressure on him to do so.
Leaders of the JUI-F and PML-N have already come out with a demand that Mr Gilani is morally bound to prove his majority in the house.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman has asked President Asif Zardari to replace Mr Gilani with another PPP leader whereas Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly and PML-N stalwart Chaudhry Nisar has categorically declared that his party would not lend a shoulder to the present 'corrupt' set-up.
Soon after the announcement of the decision by the MQM, its self-exiled chief Altaf Hussain once again made telephonic contacts with a number of political parties' heads.On Dec 27, the MQM had announced that its two federal ministers would quit the federal cabinet following the expiry of a 10-day deadline that the party had given to the PPP seeking an explanation over a controversial statement of Sindh Home Minister Dr Zulfiqar Mirza blaming the MQM for incidents of target killings in Karachi.
At that time, however, the MQM said it would continue to sit on the treasury benches and give more time to the PPP co-chairman to fulfil an unknown “commitment” which he had made with the party's representatives at a meeting last month.
According to sources in the PPP, the MQM had not only called for removing Dr Mirza, but also demanded the Sindh home ministry.
However, the MQM linked its decision to part ways with the coalition to the government's move to increase prices of petroleum products, thus making the chances of its returning to the government's fold very slim.
MQM's decision has apparently come as a surprise not only for the PPP, but also for many political analysts who were earlier convinced that even after quitting the federal cabinet the MQM would maintain its past tradition and would not come out of the government.
The PPP leadership, which is still hopeful that the MQM would come back to the coalition and claims that it is in contact with its estranged partner, according to political experts, will definitely be worried about the provincial government in Sindh as the MQM has announced that it will take a decision soon on whether to quit it.
The PPP with 127 members is now left only with the support of the 13-member ANP, a dozen independents, including 11 from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, five of the PML-F and one from the Balochistan National Party-A which brings the total number of members on the treasury benches in the National Assembly to 160.
The opposition now comprises 180 members in the house where two seats are vacant.
This composition clearly shows the fragile position of the PPP-led set-up, the fate of which now hangs in the balance and depends on future events.
The country has been facing political turmoil since Dr Mirza's speech in Karachi on Dec 13 and sacking of Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi and JUI-F's Azam Swati as the minister for science and technology the following day.
Angered by the sacking of Mr Swati, the JUI-F parted ways with the coalition and decided to sit on the opposition benches.