The second largest party in Pakistan's ruling coalition said Sunday it is quitting the government and joining the opposition, depriving the country's pro-U.S. government of a parliamentary majority and throwing its future into doubt.
It was not immediately clear whether the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's action will prompt the downfall of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's government. But it is almost certain to distract Pakistani officials at a time when the United States is pushing Islamabad to do more to help turn around the war in neighboring Afghanistan. It also raises the possibility of a new government that could be less friendly to U.S. interests and less vocal in opposing the Taliban.
The MQM opted to withdraw from the ruling coalition because of the government's poor performance in combating problems like rising inflation and the corruption weighing down average Pakistanis, said MQM lawmaker Haider Abbas Rizvi.
"We are doing it for the sake of common men," Rizvi said. The party already pulled its ministers from the Cabinet last week.
The prime minister sought to downplay the threat to his government from the defection and expressed confidence that the ruling Pakistan People's Party could avert a crisis. "The government will remain intact, it will not fall," he told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.
Some analysts have speculated that the MQM's behavior has been driven by self-interest rather than public good, leaving open the possibility that the government could still find a way to lure the party back by offering the right concessions.
"The government will continue to strive to keep the coalition intact and pursue national reconciliation," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also co-chairman of the PPP.
If the MQM goes through with its threat of shifting its 25 seats to the opposition, the ruling coalition will have fewer than the 172 seats needed for a majority in parliament.
If the government cannot hold together its majority coalition or form a new one, it could face a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Zardari, however, would likely remain in his post as president, which has a five-year term.