PRESIDENT Zardari's return to Pakistan in the early hours of this morning is a significant moment in the context of the speculation that has dominated Pakistan in recent weeks. The word put out by the PPP over the weekend suggested that the possibility of a fatal collision between the government and the army has been averted for now. Prime Minister Gilani's meeting with Gen Kayani, the telephone conversation between President Zardari and Gen Kayani and the prime minister's confident-sounding statements to the press suggested the PPP had seen off any imminent danger, if indeed there had been in the first place. Now with President Zardari returning to Pakistan and hopefully appearing in public soon, the rumours about the president's health and threats to his presidency should subside.
Still, with the Supreme Court to resume hearing of the Memogate petitions this morning, the latest bizarre episode in Pakistani politics cannot be assumed to be over. Also, still unknown is the circumstances in which Mr Zardari has returned. Does it suggest that some kind of understanding with the army has been reached and that wobbly civil-military relations will stabilise in the days ahead? Or has the president returned to personally take charge of the political leadership's response to thinly veiled attacks from other institutions? There is also the question of what the Supreme Court will elect to do. Announcing a replacement for Tariq Khosa, who declined the court's request to lead a one-man inquiry into the memo that Mansoor Ijaz delivered to Adm Mike Mullen (retd), may be on the cards as well as further directions to the government. Alternatively, the court could push the matter into the new year, giving time and space to the political government, the opposition and the army to de-escalate. Given that all sides do not appear to be keen to climb further up the ladder of escalation but are also wary of appearing as if they have backed down under pressure, time and space may be just what are needed to stave off a fresh round of crisis.
Of course, much depends on the actions of President Zardari. The preferred course of action, from the point of view of national political stability and institutional harmony, would be for the president to send a signal that he is ready to use his authority to reduce the tensions between Islamabad and Pindi. The more unfortunate course would be if the president were to come out swinging against foes, real and perceived. Pakistan could do with fewer unfortunate choices at the moment.