Pakistan opposition gives ultimatum

Pakistan's main opposition leader gave the government an ultimatum Tuesday if it wants to avert a possible collapse after the loss of its ruling majority in parliament.

Pakistan's main opposition leader gave the government an ultimatum Tuesday if it wants to avert a possible collapse after the loss of its ruling majority in parliament.

Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, gave the government a three-day deadline to accept a list of demands.

The ultimatum from the PML-N chief could determine the government's fate. His party has the second-largest number of seats in parliament and would be key in pushing through a non-confidence vote in the prime minister and possible early elections.

Such a scenario became possible when the second-largest member of the governing coalition, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, joined the opposition on Sunday, depriving the government of its parliamentary majority. It said it was partly motivated by anger over recent fuel price increases.

Sharif said the government must reverse the price hikes, cut government expenditures by 30 per cent and implement a series of court verdicts against ruling party officials for corruption. He said the government must accept the demands within 72 hours and show progress within 45 days.

"If the government says no, if the prime minister says no, then we will ask the opposition parties to come forward and we will give them our full support," Sharif said during a news conference in Islamabad after a meeting to determine the party's stance.

Sharif also threatened to withdraw from the governing coalition that the PML-N has with the ruling Pakistan People's Party on a local level in central Punjab province if the government does not meet his demands.

The ultimatum seemed to contradict statements made earlier in the day by senior PML-N officials that the party would not push to overthrow the government.

It also contradicts many analysts who said the PML-N would be reluctant to push for the government's collapse because it would be faced with the prospect of taking up the reins at such a difficult time. It has also clashed with other opposition parties, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The Pakistan People's Party could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said Sharif's demands and his threat to join other opposition parties turns up the heat on the government.

"It could really pull the government down and is an important signal that the government will either have to rethink its policies or will be in much bigger trouble," Rais said.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could rule with a minority coalition but would have to step down if he lost a non-confidence vote. Parliament could then vote on an alternative candidate or possibly move toward early elections.

The prime minister met with the PML-N and other opposition groups Monday in an apparent attempt to head off a non-confidence motion, but Tuesday's developments indicate he had little success. A non-confidence measure would require a majority of the 342-seat parliament to pass.