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Jolted Jamali woos hawks for survival

Islamabad, Nov. 28 (Reuters): Pakistan’s main pro-military party scrambled to save its fragile government today as a coalition partner withdrew its support from Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali just days after he was sworn in.

The government set out to woo conservative Islamic parties to fill the hole left when 16 lawmakers withdrew their support yesterday.

The defection robbed the government, appointed after elections last month, of its razor-thin one-seat majority in the 342-seat National Assembly.

The prospect of the fiercely anti-US Islamists joining a coalition government alarmed financial markets, sending the Karachi Stock Exchange benchmark index down more than two per cent.

A powerbroker of the Pakistan Prime Minister’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam, met Fazal-ur-Rehman, the secretary-general of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamic groups — which has 60 seats in parliament.

“We don’t want the government to collapse... we don’t want the country to plunge into crisis. That’s why we have created flexibility in our attitudes,” Rehman said after the talks.

The MMA alliance tapped popular opposition to the US military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to boost its vote from the last election when religious groups won just two seats.

The alliance opposes the presence of US troops in Pakistan and demands military President Pervez Musharraf quit the army and reverse sweeping constitutional changes made before the election.

Its rise has caused concern in the West that it could undermine the US-led hunt for al Qaida and Taliban operatives in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.

“We will try to create consensus on all issues on which MMA had reservations. I am very sure we will do it,” said government negotiator Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein. The meeting with Rehman came a day after the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party quit the government, accusing Jamali’s government of failing to back it in a row with a rival faction in the MQM stronghold of Karachi.

The defection undermines Jamali’s bid to win a mandatory confidence vote in the National Assembly within two months, unless he can win the backing of the MMA alliance.

Musharraf changed the constitution to give himself the power to sack governments and to appoint a military-dominated National Security Council to oversee civilian rule.

Political analysts said Jamali was not facing imminent danger of defeat in parliament, although the withdrawal of MQM support had dealt him and his government a blow.

They said MQM’s decision could be a ploy to extract maximum concessions from Jamali as the Prime Minister seeks to forge a coalition in Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.

“I don’t see any danger because no party wants to pull down the government. It seems to be a bargaining tactic by MQM,” analyst Shafqat Mehmood said.

However, Mehmood said Jamali would be haunted by instability unless his government mustered a comfortable majority.

To seal the premiership, Jamali had to win the support of myriad smaller parties and of 10 defectors from one of his main rivals, the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP) led by exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The PPP called for an immediate confidence vote.

“The government has lost the majority in the National Assembly after the withdrawal of support by MQM. It has turned it into a minority government,” Raza Rabbai, PPP’s acting secretary-general, told Reuters.

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