THE instructions for the government and the opposition couldn’t be simpler. Discuss with each other your preferred candidates for a caretaker prime minister. If you don’t agree, forward two names each to a joint parliamentary committee. If the committee doesn’t agree, let the Election Commission of Pakistan decide. The constitution lays out the process in a series of straightforward steps needed to put a caretaker prime minister in place and get on with the business of contesting elections. So why all the fuss? Why the constant statements to the media, from the president, the prime minister, the information minister, the leader of the opposition, the PML-N chief and whichever other politician — whether belonging to a party represented in parliament or not — who has a moment in front of the cameras? It’s obvious that the best way to solve this issue is behind closed doors. Every time one party mentions a possible candidate and some other group shoots the option down, a potential caretaker prime minister becomes controversial. The same happens when one side proposes judges and generals and another side disagrees.
A similarly unnecessary public spat is under way about announcing the election date, with the government now suggesting dissolving the assemblies near their natural end date in mid-March, when it had earlier, in the immediate aftermath of Dr Qadri’s protest march, suggested mid-February. The opposition, meanwhile, is insisting on an immediate interim set-up, though without committing to the disbanding of the Punjab Assembly before time. This demand is based on the allegation, one for which no evidence has been provided, that the ruling party wants elections delayed. The upshot is that with their public squabbling, the two major parties are playing into the arguments of those who think civilians should not be allowed to govern Pakistan.
It is tempting, when elections are around the corner, to turn up the heat on political rivals and turn every non-issue into an opportunity to score points, which is precisely what the government and the opposition seem to be trying to do. But there was some merit in what Nawaz Sharif said on Tuesday. Whether or not it is necessary to put a caretaker government in place immediately, as he suggested, is up for debate, but he had a point when he said that a deadlock isn’t helping the democratic process. The government and the opposition don’t appear to be talking to each other in any meaningful way, when genuine behind-the-scenes consultation, with eyes on the ultimate prize of a smooth democratic transition, is in their own best interests.