Pakistan PM Gilani in crisis talks with opposition

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Pakistan's prime minister is meeting opposition leaders in a bid to prevent a possible no-confidence vote after a key partner left the ruling coalition.

Yousuf Raza Gilani's government faces losing its majority after the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) announced on Sunday it would go into opposition.

The MQM accuses the government of poor performance, especially on corruption and the economy.

Elections may have to be held if the government cannot find new partners.

President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday expressed his full confidence in his prime minister. Mr Zardari said in a statement he "solidly stands behind him in foiling any attempt to destabilise the coalition government".

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says Mr Zardari's show of confidence means the prime minister's job is safe for now, leaving the ball in the opposition's court.

'Puppet show'

The MQM, which withdrew two ministers from the federal cabinet last week, was the second largest party in the coalition.

A smaller coalition partner, the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam party, pulled out last month after one of its ministers was sacked.

Pakistan's governing coalition held 181 seats - including the MQM's 25 - in the 342-member parliament.

Analysis

Pakistan's government is deeply unpopular. It's also beset with problems, from its battles with insurgents to a failing economy and the devastation caused by the floods in the summer.

The issues are so challenging that even ambitious opposition figures, like the PML-N's Nawaz Sharif, may not be keen to take them on. And there's a wider concern about the health of Pakistan's democracy.

The past has been dominated by a pattern of dysfunctional civilian governments being swept aside by military rule. So far the current military leadership doesn't seem inclined to intervene.

Many were eager that the current civilian government would manage to become the first in Pakistan's history to serve a full term. If the government does limp on, it will clearly be severely weakened - and will struggle to pass legislation.

It will also stay vulnerable. One Pakistani newspaper described it as "terminally ill" - raising fears that the question is when, not if, it finally goes.

The MQM's departure leaves Mr Gilani's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) well below the 172 seats needed to preserve its majority.

On Monday, the premier is due to meet Shahbaz Sharif, president of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) - the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly.

The PML-N - which rules Punjab province with the support of Mr Gilani's PPP - was a partner in the central government's ruling alliance, but withdrew two years ago because of political differences.

Shahbaz Sharif has consulted his brother, PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, ahead of the meeting with the prime minister.

Discussing the political turmoil last week, Nawaz Sharif said he would not become a part of the "puppet show".

The statement was interpreted as a suggestion that the smaller groups have deserted the PPP-led civilian government at the behest of the security establishment.

On Monday, Mr Gilani is also due to meet the leader of another major opposition party, the PML-Q.

As the National Assembly holds its first session of the new year later on Monday, the MQM is expected to cross the aisle to the opposition benches.

The party says it quit the alliance because fuel price hikes, bad governance and corruption had "passed all limits".

Even so, he said that by not pulling out of government in Sindh province, the MQM had given the government "a chance to take corrective measures".

The MQM dominates politics in the city of Karachi, the capital of the southern province of Sindh.

The party's militant wing is widely believed to be behind a wave of ethnic and political killings in Karachi over the last few years.

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