By Faisal Aziz
THE Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is scrambling to stop its main coalition partner from pulling out of the ruling alliance in the country's latest political storm.
President Asif Ali Zardari is leading efforts to pacify the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest party in the coalition, which this week pulled its two ministers from the federal cabinet.
Following are some possible outcomes of the turmoil which has raised questions over the fate of the US-backed government already under pressure to improve the fragile economy and contain Taliban militants.
The MQM agrees to rejoin cabinet
The MQM said the withdrawal of its ministers from the cabinet was a first step to breaking with the coalition. It pulled them out because of what it said was the government's failure to improve security and stamp out corruption, something that is unlikely to happen any time soon and the party is aware of that.
The MQM, which has made threats to abandon the coalition in the past, is likely to rejoin the cabinet.
A return to the status quo would ease tension, but the crisis will reinforce the impression that Pakistani politicians are highly skilled at drama and not committed to tackling the country's most pressing issues.
To get the MQM back on board, Zardari may have to take decisive steps such as the dismissal of his close aide and Sindh province's home minister, Zulfiqar Mirza, a vocal critic of the MQM, which dominates politics in Pakistan's financial capital and biggest city Karachi, capital of Sindh.
Raising the likelihood that the coalition will survive are deepening divisions between the MQM and the main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, one of Pakistan's most popular politicians.
Chances are slim that the MQM will join forces with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, the second largest party in parliament.
As the influential Dawn newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday: "Everything is in flux, until it appears that nothing may in fact be moving - that could sum up all the political 'action' the country has seen in recent weeks."
The MQM joins opposition benches
In that case, the government would lose its majority and fall. Forming a new one would likely be a protracted, delicate process.
No political parties have good ties with Sharif and his party's differences with the MQM have started to get ugly, with both sides engaging in public, personal attacks on leaders.
If the government collapses, it could mean a call for early elections, which are otherwise due in 2013. That would plunge the country into political uncertainty and distract leaders from tackling security and economic problems.
The Prime Minister quits
Zardari's aides are trying to win back the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a small coalition partner, which left the government this month over the sacking of one of its ministers and sat with the opposition.
While Pakistan's pro-Taliban religious parties don't win significant votes in elections, they have the capability to stir emotions and street protests. The government can't afford to ignore them. The head of the JUI, Fazal-ur-Rehman, has called for the resignation of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
While there are no signs yet that may happen, rising difference between Zardari and Gilani have raised speculation that the prime minister is becoming vulnerable. Some analysts say Gilani may opt to resign if the pressure on his government becomes unbearable.
A long shot but it can't be ruled out. The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history. If the generals decide the government's failures are stacking up and it is losing control, they may take drastic action.
The military may already be stepping in behind the scenes to try to ease tension.