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Key party rejoins Pakistan's ruling coalition

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's decision to roll back a fuel price surcharge prompts the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to return to the ruling coalition, easing fear of its imminent collapse.

January 08, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani, center, waves as he walks with Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Baber Ghori before a meeting with MQM leaders in Karachi. MQM rejoined the coalition, but didn't not resume its posts in the Cabinet
Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani, center, waves as he walks with Muttahida… (Athar Hussain, Reuters )

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — A key party that had defected this week from Pakistan's ruling coalition returned to the government Friday, a move that averts a major political crisis at a time when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's embattled administration is struggling to overcome mounting economic turmoil and a resilient insurgency.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement's decision to rejoin the coalition, led by Gilani's Pakistan People's Party, came just a day after Gilani told the nation he was reversing his decision to impose fuel price increases as high as 9% that had kicked in Jan. 1. The highly unpopular increases had been harshly criticized by a broad spectrum of political leaders, and MQM officials had cited them Sunday as a prime reason the party was leaving the ruling coalition and joining the opposition.

MQM's departure had left Gilani without a majority in the parliament, making his government vulnerable to collapse. The fall of the government would deal a severe blow to the nation as it embarks on the daunting task of reconstruction after catastrophic summer floods that cost billions of dollars in damaged housing, farmland and infrastructure.

The ruling Pakistan People's Party has also had to grapple with the aftermath of the assassination of one of its top political leaders, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who was gunned down Tuesday in Islamabad by one of his bodyguards. Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of the elite police force team assigned to provide security for Taseer, has told officials he carried out the assassination because of the governor's opposition to a Pakistani law that makes it a crime to insult Islam.

One of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's top leaders, Raza Haroon, announced his party's decision to rejoin the government after Gilani met with high-ranking MQM officials Friday in Karachi, the party's main stronghold and Pakistan's largest city.

MQM is the second-largest party in the ruling coalition with 25 parliament seats. Though MQM resumed its place within the coalition, it decided against returning its ministers to Gilani's Cabinet. Haroon did not explain why, but the move may be an attempt to maintain a degree of leverage over Gilani's party.

"In current conditions, it is essential that all political parties should be united," said Haroon, speaking to a throng of MQM supporters outside the party's headquarters in Karachi.

Gilani echoed Haroon's remarks, telling the crowd, "We don't move forward without mutual consensus."

Although MQM's return to the ruling coalition staves off the potential fall of the government, Gilani's reversal of the fuel price increase forces his administration to look for other ways to reduce the country's deficit, which must be tackled to satisfy conditions set by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has provided billions of dollars in loans that Pakistan desperately needs to improve its economy and rebound from last year's floods.

Pakistan's stability — both economic and political — remains a major concern for the U.S., which regards the nuclear-armed nation as a crucial ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-allied militants hiding out in the country's largely lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed dismay over Islamabad's rollback of the fuel price increases, telling reporters in Washington this week that "it is a mistake to reverse the progress that was being made to provide a stronger economic base for Pakistan."

IMF spokeswoman Caroline Atkinson also criticized the government's decision and called Pakistan's reliance on energy subsidies "inefficient and untargeted."

The bulk of the benefit from the energy subsidies, Atkinson said, "goes to higher-income individuals and large companies."

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