|The MQM, whose main support base is located in the city of Karachi, will now sit on the opposition benches [File: EPA]
Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, is on Monday due to meet a leader of the main opposition party in a bid to head off a possible vote of no confidence against him.
This comes after Gilani’s government lost its parliamentary majority on Sunday when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a key partner in the governing coalition, announced it would withdraw to sit on the opposition bench in the National Assembly.
The Prime Minister is scheduled to meet the president of the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). He will “discuss the political situation with Shahbaz Sharif and ways and means to resolve this crisis," an official in Gilani's office told Reuters news agency.
There is growing demand for Gilani to resign, and the MQM's withdrawal means that if opposition parties close ranks, they would be able to force a no-confidence vote on him in parliament.
Even though Gilani insists his PPP-led (Pakistan People's Party) government will not collapse, MQM’s decision has raised concerns about its stability.
“There are some tough times ahead, and if the opposition gears up, the government will not be able to move any legislation in an already embatrered National Assembly,” Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder reported from Islamabad.
“The government is now beleaguered because it has become unpopular, [there is] misgovernance, and mishandling of the economy,” Hyder added.
Mosharraf Zaidi, an independent political analyst, told Al Jazeera the government will have to demonstrate that it has the necessary numbers in parliament to validate it being in power. Regarding the split with the MQM, he said "It's not a divorce under irrocencilable differences. it is more like a sqabble that can be resolved."
The MQM's move came days after two of its ministers quit the federal cabinet, in protest against the government's plans to impose a new "reformed general sales tax". The party accuses the government of not doing enough to tackle inflation and corruption in the country.
Gilani said he was confident the government could maintain its majority. But analysts doubt that he would see out his term, which ends in 2013.
The ruling party may try to lure some of the other, smaller opposition parties into its fold, but that looks unlikely. The chances of the opposition forming a new ruling alliance are slim, as the PML-N does not enjoy close ties with other opposition parties.
Analysts said the ruling party had only weeks, if not days, to try to prevent the government's collapse. If the crisis deepens, an early election may be called.
Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president and the co-chairperson of the PPP, recently visited Karachi, the MQM's main support base, to hold emergency talks with the party's leaders, but no agreement was reached.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Haider Abbas Rizvi, MQM's deputy parliamentary leader, cited government corruption, rising prices and a regressive tax policy as the factors behind the party's decision.
"The poor and middle class people are being taxed by the government, but the rich and the feudals are never being taxed," Rizvi said.
An MQM statement said the tipping point was the government's decision to raise the prices of petroleum products on January 1.
"Right at the start of the new year the government has raised the prices of petrol and kerosene oil which is unbearable for the people who are already under pressure from the already high prices," the MQM said.
Rizvi asserted that his party was not seeking to destabilise or overthrow the government.
"Our idea is certainly not to support the government, but we do not want to become a part of derailing the existing political system in Pakistan. We would ... support, while sitting in the opposition, all the good ideas of the government in parliament," he said.
"We have no intention whatsoever to derail the government."
Al Jazeera's Hyder said a no-trust motion is not likely to materialise because the opposition PML-N is loathe to side with the MQM.
"The PML-N is siding with the PPP [on the MQM issue], particularly the prime minister, even though openly there is a war of words going between the two," our correspondent said.
"Recently, the PML-N got into a verbal fight with the MQM, with all kinds of allegations being levelled against each other. So, that ... may have prompted the government to rely on the PML-N and to lose its key ally, the MQM."
Discussing the timing of the MQM withdrawal, Hyder said public sentiment is very much opposed to the PPP and its government.
In its response to Sunday's development, the PML-N said through its spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, "it is the PPP's moral duty now to prove their majority in the National Assembly. The prime minister should take a fresh vote of confidence from the parliament".
Without the MQM's 25 seats, the PPP's coalition numbers--160 seats in the 342-member National Assembly-- is 12 short of the 172 required for a majority.