FOR a space of nearly 48 hours, everything appeared to be going as well as possible under the circumstances. The PPP had accepted the Supreme Court verdict, Yousuf Raza Gilani had stepped down and a candidate for the role had been announced. There were no large-scale protests and matters were proceeding in line with the constitution and parliamentary procedure. But this is Pakistan, and another day without more political upheaval was perhaps too much to ask for. Makhdoom Shahabuddin may not have been the wisest choice for prime minister, given that he had been linked to the ongoing ephedrine case. But it is impossible not to raise eyebrows at the timing of his arrest warrant, especially since his name was first raised in connection with the scandal a couple of months ago.
The move has raised fresh tensions in Islamabad, with the ruling party speculating that extra-constitutional forces were unable to stomach the smooth transition that was under way. But while late-night developments might change the picture, as things stand at the moment the PPP is sticking to the right plan of following parliamentary procedure and avoiding confrontation. At the same time it is resisting the opposition demand for early polls. And that makes the PML-N’s moves crucial as well. So far the largest opposition party has played its part in respecting and strengthening the parliamentary process by fielding its own candidate despite the fact that getting him elected will be nearly impossible given the configuration of the National Assembly. The PPP’s acceptance of the verdict and the PML-N’s decision to challenge the coalition within parliament are promising signs of political maturity.
At least on the face of it, then, the major political players seem to be working within, and therefore reinforcing, the system. But given the uncanny timing of yesterday’s developments, we cannot rule out the possibility that there are forces working behind the scenes to prevent Pakistan’s fledgling democracy from weathering the current crisis. Despite its obvious flaws, particularly on the governance front, the endurance of the post-Musharraf system has been an achievement in itself. To keep it going a new prime minister needs to be elected as soon as possible, following which the ruling coalition and the opposition should work together to appoint a chief election commissioner and can negotiate an interim set-up and the timing of elections. For all of this to fall into place, today is a critical day. It will require political leaders to keep their wits about them, continue to avoid confrontation with each other and with other institutions, and keep their eyes on the real prize — preserving Pakistan’s hard-won democracy.