Coalition building, again
Indications from Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the core leadership of the PPP point to efforts to rebuild the depleted coalition at the federal level and seek replacement partners for the PML-N in Punjab. The effort is considered crucial in the light of the impending need to pass the federal budget and next year’s Senate elections. It may also be motivated by President Asif Ali Zardari’s message to his party to start preparing for the next general elections.
The PPP-led coalition that came into being after the 2008 general elections started unravelling soon after when the main partner, the PML-N, parted company with the PPP over, amongst other issues, the restoration of the superior judiciary. Since about one year, the remaining coalition has seen the departure of the MQM and the JUI-F. Although the prime minister emphasises that talks are on with these estranged partners, and their return cannot be ruled out, the MQM shows continuing reluctance to retrace its steps. The JUI-F too is playing its cards close to the chest so far. In a sign of increasing desperation, the PPP government has even initiated the hitherto unthinkable – inviting the PML-Q into the fold. Although the Chaudries seem well disposed towards this invitation, they face considerable opposition from within their ranks for ideological and tactical reasons. The stakes for the PML-Q are considerable too. Although their bringing their 50 MNAs to the PPP trough would consolidate the PPP’s position that teeters precariously at present at a bare majority of 172 in a house of 342, especially when an expected tough budget is moved in parliament, for the PML-Q the consideration of the possible loss of its 20 Senate seats in next year’s election looms large. Seat adjustments with the PPP are being dangled as a carrot. The ‘stick’ is provided by the troubles Chaudhry Pervez Elahi’s son, Moonis Elahi, is entrapped in currently in the NICL scandal. It may be significant to note that the most credible officers involved in the investigation of the case have been removed, reportedly on the PML-Q leadership’s insistence.
Passing the budget may prove a tough call in the background of the controversy that arose over the imposition of RGST and other economic reforms pledged with the IMF. The failure to get these reforms passed through parliament, with the collateral fallout of the coalition losing some of its partners, irritated the IMF enough to suspend the Standby Arrangement, with the last tranche of the $ 11.3 billion facility still to be seen in Pakistan’s coffers. The IMF has indicated in its interaction with the economic managers’ team that attended the annual IMF-WB meetings in Washington recently, that no fresh loan would be available until the Standby Arrangement is completed, i.e. the reforms attached as conditions to this facility are carried out. Given the opposition to the RGST outside and within the coalition, the budget promises to be a tricky exercise unless the government has the necessary cushion of numbers on its side. Given this reality, the prime minister’s claim that the government will deliver on the economic front seems more like wishful thinking than a concrete plan.
The government’s hope is that the PML-Q can not only prove a better alternative for a comfortable majority than the difficult MQM, the momentum such a change may produce could also persuade estranged former allies such as the JUI-F. The prime minister’s envisaged cabinet expansion appears to have been put on hold until the negotiations with potential coalition partners either bear fruit or founder. That means PPP hopefuls for a cabinet berth will have to cool their heels until the dust settles.
Coalition governments inherently are weak and difficult to manage since the major partner (in our case the PPP) has to accommodate the wishes of all coalition partners, big and small, and sometime s forego its own agenda to keep the coalition intact. Even if the PPP succeeds in its present efforts to recast the coalition to safeguard its flanks in the upcoming budget exercise, strengthens its prospects vis-à-vis next year’s Senate elections, and positions itself for the next general elections, the question remains whether whatever coalition finally takes shape (assuming it does of course) will be capable of tackling the grave crises of terrorism, law and order, a weak economy and the plight of the beleaguered citizens.