ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The government of Pakistan keeps on collapsing.
Following the departure of a key coalition partner over the weekend, the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has lost its majority in the National Assembly and finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position.
One local English-language daily said the government was clinging “by its fingernails to the edge of a steep cliff,” and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday gave an ultimatum to the government to implement a series of reforms or otherwise face the axe.
That ultimatum was subsequently postponed by three days after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, a political ally of the prime minister who was apparently murdered for his outspoken opposition to the country's anti-blasphemy law, at an upscale Islamabad market on Tuesday.
This is not the first time that the government, led by Pakistan’s People Party, or PPP, which swept into power in 2008 on a wave of sympathy following Benazir Bhutto’s murder in late 2007, has faced predictions of impending doom.
Almost from the start the government faced corruption allegations and the scrutiny of the country’s judicial system. And, as evidenced in diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks, Pakistan’s security establishment considered pushing for a government change early on.
Yet more than halfway through its five-year term, the beleaguered government has some reason to think it can retain power a little longer. First, while the ruling coalition is indeed crumbling, the opposition is far from a united front. Second, nobody appears particularly eager to take charge of a country that is limping from one crisis to another, from crippling gas and electricity shortages to a ballooning deficit and a deteriorating security situation. That was made clear by Sharif, who gave the government 45 days — an eternity under today’s tense circumstances — to implement his party’s agenda.
“It’s not collapsing,” Imtiaz Gul, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said of the government. “Because a lot hinges on Nawaz Sharif, and Nawaz Sharif has given the government another opportunity.”
Gul said that the demands of Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League, which include a reduction of budget expenses, rooting out corruption and protecting Pakistan’s sovereignty, are general enough that the PPP could adopt them as its own. Regarding the requested cancellation of a recently announced fuel price increase, Gul said he was confident the PPP and its rival could find a compromise.
But the foremost reason why the current government is still in place, Gul said, is that many of Pakistan’s problems are considered intractable in the short-term and no political party wants to be held accountable for the ongoing mess.
“They don’t want to replace the government because they know the economic situation is very bad,” Gul said.
Governments in Pakistan have had trouble completing their terms because of a series of coups and military takeovers, leading many observers to hope that the PPP-led coalition will remain in power despite its numerous shortcomings.
“We need to establish a tradition of stable democratic rule if we are to have any hope for the future, and political parties should be pushing for this,” wrote the Karachi-based Express-Tribune in an editorial on Wednesday.
The latest trouble for the PPP government stems from the defection of two coalition partners in quick succession. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, a religious party, moved to the opposition last month after the sacking of its minister. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which enjoys support in the southern metropolis of Karachi, last week removed its two ministers from the federal cabinet and this week defected to the opposition in parliament.
Both parties said they left the coalition because of the government’s poor performance. The moves have left the PPP, which still has the largest number of members in parliament, short of a majority in the National Assembly. Unless it finds new allies or wins back the seats it lost, the party of President Asif Ali Zardari faces at best a very difficult time in parliament and at worst a dissolution of the government and early elections.
If the current government has shown any quality during its almost three years in power, however, it is resilience. Last year, Zardari and several of his ministers faced a zealous Supreme Court intent on pressing corruption charges against them before a last-minute compromise was found.
More serious still were the WikiLeaks revelations, which revealed that the chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Afshaq Kayani, arguably the country’s most powerful man, had considered ousting Zardari in 2009 but decided against it because he disliked the alternative — Sharif — even more.
And that is why Sharif appears reluctant to move too aggressively against the current government, said Cyril Almeida, an Islamabad-based analyst and columnist, in an interview. Almeida said Sharif not only lacks the support of the military, but also that of the Americans, who prop up Pakistan’s economy with aid dollars.
Almeida said that lack of support, and a fractured opposition, ensures that the status quo will prevail for the near future.
“No one wants to support the government, but no one wants to overthrow it either,” Almeida said. “Now it’s pretty clear that nothing will move for 45 days.”