Pakistan government holds together, but problems widen

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's shaky government was thrown a lifeline Friday when it regained its parliamentary majority by enticing back a political party that had previously quit the ruling coalition.

Nonetheless, the deal, which was brokered around rescinding a recent increase in gasoline prices, further damages state finances for a nation already on the verge of bankruptcy.

The decision to cancel the gasoline increase was criticized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday in Washington as "a mistake to reverse the progress that was being made to provide a stronger economic base for Pakistan."

On Jan. 2, the Pakistan Peoples Party's majority in parliament unraveled when the second biggest party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, backed out of the coalition and joined the opposition.

In the past week, Pakistan has been shaken first by its governmental troubles and then by Tuesday's assassination of a prominent politician. At same time, the country is battling Islamic extremism and an economy in freefall.

Just how Pakistan handles these tough problems is important to Washington, whose global anti-terror strategy rests, in part, on stabilizing the nuclear-armed nation, which continues to provide a hiding place for the Afghan Taliban and al Qaida's leadership.

The murder of Salman Taseer, a progressive politician who'd called for a softening of the nation's blasphemy law, continues to be cheered by significant numbers of ordinarily Pakistanis. The population's slide into extremism is reflected in a growing contempt for free speech and for the alliance with the U.S.

President Asif Zardari, visiting Taseer's grieving family, said: "Taseer was martyred to further polarize the society behind the facade of religion to frighten the democratic forces."

At the time, the MQM bowed out of the coalition, it blamed the 9 percent increase in gasoline prices. Its real concerns are believed to run much deeper, including friction between supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the MQM in the southern port city of Karachi.

With Friday's pact, the government gets a second chance — for now.

"Our unity will benefit both the country and the national interest," Prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, announced Friday outside the MQM's headquarters in Karachi. "We can steer the country out of this storm."

The coalition, elected in 2008 and with two years still left in its five-year term, remains fragile. However, the administration has outlasted many forecasts of its detractors, as has democracy in Pakistan, which had been ruled for most of its existence by the military.

The government has failed to push through economic reforms, and urgent revenue-raising figures that were aimed to provide the finances to cope with the devastation from last year's floods. The government couldn't garner support to introduce a sales tax that was a key condition of an IMF lending program that's keeping Pakistan on life support.

Washington, which is lavishing $1.5 billion a year in civilian aid on Pakistan together with around $2 billion a year to the country's military, has repeated pressed Islamabad to come up with greater financial resources itself. It is commonplace for Pakistani to fail to pay taxes. As a result, Pakistan's tax revenues are just 9 percent of its gross domestic product, among the lowest in Asia.

The government had previously stated that gasoline prices needed to rise to keep pace with international rates. With the rescission, it will lose an estimated $58 million a month.

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