Islamabad: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari threw his weight on Monday behind beleaguered Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani against any attempts to destabilize his government after a key partner quit the ruling coalition.
The opposition has not yet sought a no-confidence vote against Gilani in parliament but analysts said that was the biggest worry for the prime minister as he scrambled to shore up support.
Gilani`s government lost its parliamentary majority on Sunday when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) announced it would go into opposition over government fuel price policies that it said were "unbearable" for Pakistanis.
The political crisis comes at a time when the United States has increased pressure on Pakistan to go after Islamist militant groups to help it turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan.
It also adds to the Pakistani government`s problems at home as it struggles to avoid economic collapse and meet demands placed on it by the International Monetary Fund in return for an USD 11 billion loan.
Pakistani stocks opened 1.43 percent lower on Monday after the MQM switched political allegiance, dealers said.
The Karachi Stock Exchange`s benchmark 100-share index was down 1.51 percent, or 182.05 points, at 11840.41, on turnover of 57.93 million shares by 1:06 pm. (3:06 am ET)
The MQM`s withdrawal means that if opposition parties close ranks, they would be able to force a no-confidence vote on Gilani in Parliament.
No party has formally called for such a vote yet, but analysts said that was the main worry for the coalition government.
"From this point onward, the government will be on crutches. The no-confidence vote is a threat for it." said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
The MQM has not yet taken any decision on a vote in the government, party leader Faisal Subzwari said. The party said its senators had submitted a motion seeking a rollback of fuel price rises.
While anger over fuel prices was the immediate provocation, the MQM has also been complaining for months that the government was not doing enough to improve security in its home base of Karachi, Pakistan`s financial capital and biggest city.
Karachi`s so-called targeted killings, often blamed on supporters of the MQM and its rival party the Awami National Party, have risen to their highest levels in 15 years.
Drive-by shootings, drug wars, extortion rackets and land grabbing are deepening chaos in Karachi, which officials say contributes 68 percent of the government`s total revenue and 25 percent of gross domestic product.
If the political crisis deepens, an early election may be called in Pakistan, where the al Qaeda-linked Taliban have been stepping up suicide bombings, challenging government assertions that army offensives had hurt militants.
Gilani met the president of the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) on Monday. They were expected to discuss ways of resolving the crisis.
He is also due to meet Chaudhry Shujaat, leader of another major opposition party, the PML-Q. "He indicated he would seek our support,” said a party official.
Gilani is known as one of the few officials who managed to avoid making too many enemies in Pakistan politics.
He enjoys good ties with Pakistan`s powerful military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 63-year history.
The MQM pullout came after Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a pro-Taliban religious party, quit the coalition last month and went into opposition after Gilani sacked one of its ministers.
The party repeated its call for Gilani`s resignation and said it ruled out rejoining the coalition.
"Gilani has no moral grounds on which he stays in power anymore. He should step down himself instead someone throws him out," said party deputy leader Abdul Ghafoor Haideri.
"The President should ask him to seek a confidence vote from the Parliament."
While analysts doubt that Gilani would see out his term, which ends in 2013, the chances of the opposition forming a new ruling alliance are slim. The PML-N, headed by popular politician Nawaz Sharif, does not enjoy close ties with other opposition parties.
The political paralysis will make it even harder for leaders to tackle problems frustrating millions of Pakistanis such as poverty, corruption and power cuts.
The government faces fierce opposition from almost all political parties, including the MQM, to its bid to implement a reformed general sales tax (RGST) -- a key condition for the possible release of the sixth tranche of the IMF loan which has been keeping the economy afloat since it was agreed in 2008.