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Coalition headaches

24 December, 2010

By M.A. Niazi


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While the exit of the JUI-F from the ruling coalition at the centre has threatened it as a whole, it has also illustrated other pitfalls of coalition governments. The real reason the coalition is supposed to be under threat is not because the Gilani government has been converted into a minority, but because it is now that the desertions have begun, and because the departure of the JUI-F coincided with Sindh Home Minister Zulfikar Mirza’s accusations against the MQM. If the MQM, with a much larger number of MNAs than the JUI-F, was also to leave the government, it would definitely fall, just at the moment when it was set to send the RGST through the National Assembly, it already having cleared the Senate.

The departure has occurred because of the clash of two rules governing parliamentary governments. They were: first, ministers in a coalition government are nominated by their respective party chiefs; second, once in the Cabinet, ministers are supposed to be bound by loyalty to the head of the Cabinet and by collective Cabinet responsibility. The particular dilemma occurred because the JUI-F minister still felt himself bound to his party more than to the Cabinet, and thus he thought, to criticise the Religious Affairs Minister, whom he saw as both as belonging to a different school of thought and a party that was the JUI-F’s rival, even though the minister belonged to the PPP, not the JUI, to which his father belonged, and to which he seemed to have a greater affinity for. Though belonging to different parties, the two ministers belonged to the same Cabinet, and thus should not have been issuing statements against one another. It obviously did not help that Maulana Kazmi’s ministry was found responsible for the mess which had occasioned Mr Azam Swati’s remarks in the first place. That was when Mr Gilani took the action of sacking both ministers. While for Maulana Kazmi, he needed a go-ahead from their common party chief, for Mr Swati, he needed to get Swati’s party head, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, to give him a replacement. Instead, at this point, Maulana Fazlur Rehman chose to pull his entire team out of the Cabinet.

It should be kept in mind that the JUI-F must already have been unhappy in office, and inclined to leave, with Swati just providing the excuse. The most attractive opposition issue for the JUI-F was the RGST, which the party is now free to oppose, whereas being part of the government made it obliged to vote in its favour. The JUI-F may not be solely a party of opposition, but it is disinclined to be a spare wheel, which was all it really was at the centre. It was more interested in being included in the power equation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the real winner had been the ANP, which had also joined the central coalition as well as obtaining the chief ministry the JUI-F had previously had in the previous government.

It was worth noting that both the JUI-F and the MQM had regional considerations prompting them to be included in the central government. Indeed, the MQM was directly an ally in the Sindh government, though there the PPP did not need the MQM to rule. However, the MQM’s numbers were needed at the centre. At the centre, the PPP, as previously, had not obtained an absolute majority, and needed the MQM if it hoped to remain in office. While the Sindh Home Minister was castigating the MQM for its alleged involvement in the target killings in Sindh, the Central government needed its votes not just for the RGST Bill, but also for its survival. Though it seems that the demand for the Home Minister’s head had died down, it took a meeting with the President to make matters really die down, as the MQM too wished. They want to retain the headship of various local bodies in the forthcoming elections, and do not need any complications now.

Another point where the PPP might face bother would be in Balochistan, where if combined with the PML-Q, the JUI-F would be able to topple the government there. The numbers needed in Balochistan are less than in the centre, and there the JUI-F is a major party. So is the PML-Q, but its members’ obedience to central directives is suspect. However, the purpose of the whole exercise, showing the PPP how powerful the JUI-F (which has denied the move after its recent CEC meeting) could be, has still succeeded.

The exact role of the PML-Q has become wonderfully obscure. It never formed part of the government, but an initial positioning has meant that the PML-Q might form the Punjab government, but only if the PPP supports it. The effect of half the Punjab Assembly PML-Q having deserted it in favour of the Shahbaz government means that the party’s ability to form the government there, even with PPP support, was thrown into doubt. The PML-Q has not joined the Muttahida Muslim League of Pir Pagaro, another move that faces it, another which drives the Chaudhrys of Gujrat towards the Sharifs of Lahore.

The PPP may have avoided an election following the collapse of its government, but that has serious implications for it. First, the next general election will not necessarily take place when it chooses, but when its allies do, because the survival of the government is not any longer in the hands of the largest party in the coalition, but in those of its smaller components. The series of meetings and contacts that took place after the exit of the JUI-F from the government, showed how seriously the political parties took the possibility of a collapse of the government, and of a subsequent general election. That it will not happen is no longer to the credit of the PPP, but of the parties that remain in the coalition. The situation, of the tail wagging the dog, does not bode well for governance, and thus not for the country.

Another deeply interested party is the PML-N. It is the party which hopes to benefit the most from a future general election. At the moment, a general election might evoke mixed feelings, because it would most likely mean dissolution of the provincial assemblies, where the PML-N is in office. While MNAs and MPAs both fear elections, those who have already made it (or not) to the Cabinet would prefer the status quo to continue. However, MNAs would prefer the chance, which they see as bright, of gaining office. The PML-N has come a long way from the point where it formed part of the government coalition.

Another factor favouring the government is time. The present assemblies, and thus governments, have not reached the halfway mark yet. After three years, there seems to develop the feeling that elections, being round the corner, might as well be held at once. It is after three years that the smaller coalition partners may precipitate a general election, not to spite their senior partner, but because they sense some advantage, either in terms of more seats, or better alliances, which would in turn lead them to power.

The government should not look at this crisis as a minor one, but as the precursor of a major one which may well bring down the government. The MQM, in particular, bears watching with particular attention, because of its numbers, which now make it able alone to bring down the government, and because this is the second crisis involving it in recent times. One step the government must take is the abandonment of the RGST, unless it prefers the pleasure of the international lending agencies, and by extension the US, to that of the people of Pakistan. In the rest of its term, it might prefer to pay more attention to them, for they are the ones, who will vote in a general election, which so far, sitting governments have always lost.

 

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