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High drama

January 16, 2013

WAS it one element of a wider conspiracy? Or just an unnecessarily hasty move? Either way, the timing of the Supreme Court order that has effectively asked for the prime minister’s arrest — coming as it did just as Dr Qadri was demanding the government’s dismissal — wasn’t simply a natural milestone in the rental power case, in which orders to investigate the accused were issued several months ago. Even if arrests were overdue, the SC would have done both the country and itself a favour by waiting a few more days — having already waited nearly a year — thereby avoiding the perception of backing Dr Qadri’s still-unclear agenda. With tens of thousands of people agitating against the administration outside parliament, the choice of yesterday afternoon to issue the order did exactly what one would expect: exponentially ratchet up the political uncertainty gripping the country.

That is partly, to give credit where it is due, because Dr Qadri has touched a very real nerve. The numbers that turned out were far lower than he continues to insist, but tens of thousands of supporters did show up in the Islamabad winter. And while they may not have been able to answer questions about the specifics of his agenda or how they would constitutionally bring down a government, they did know, and could articulate, legitimate reasons for why they are tired of the current set-up. But this government has at the most two months to go. Armed with public support, the fiery passion of a preacher and an understanding of people’s needs, Dr Qadri would do better to work constructively with the Election Commission on the electoral reforms so dear to his heart and save the theatrics for an election campaign.

And what should the government do next? Contrary to popular perception that the order against him implies criminality, the prime minister is still the head of the government, and will continue to be so even if he is taken into custody. The right thing for the ruling party to do, then, is to stay calm and start talking. It needs to talk to major coalition and opposition parties to get their consensus on the right next step for the government and the assemblies. And it needs to talk to Dr Qadri to demonstrate its willingness to hold the freest and fairest possible elections. Through all of this, all parties need to keep their eyes on the prize — preserving the system, whether through early or on-time elections. For the government, that means not accepting any unconstitutional demands. For everyone else, it means not making any.