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A mature response

January 17, 2013

UNCERTAINTY, anxiety, apprehension and tension — into this destabilising mix of factors roiling the political landscape at the moment, the mainstream opposition parties could have added their own mischief. Instead, led by PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, a gathering of opposition leaders issued a ringing endorsement of the democratic process, rejected the crux of Tahirul Qadri’s unconstitutional demands and called for an orderly election process without delay. In doing so, they have helped dispel much of the uncertainty surrounding Mr Qadri’s sit-in near parliament, particularly the possibility that somehow the democratic process itself could be derailed if events snowballed. Self-interest has clearly animated the opposition’s stance on Mr Qadri’s demands but, happily for Pakistan and Pakistanis, it was self-interest of an enlightened kind that was on display on Wednesday in Raiwind. For much as opposition parties would like to be in power — and there’s little to fault in a politician who would rather govern than sit on opposition benches — there appears to be an understanding that forcing a government out through street power today could mean the same thing will happen to today’s opposition when it is elected to govern.

In their mature and sensible response, the opposition leaders have underlined a key gain of the past five years: the rejection of the smash-and-grab power politics of the 1990s that created a vicious cycle in which the sole aim of politicians was to bring their opponents down. In particular, Nawaz Sharif, the biggest political actor to have survived from that period, appears intent on not repeating that key mistake of the past, and has taken much flak for it, often taunted by more aggressive politicians for flying the flag of a ‘friendly opposition’. But when the history of the present transition to democracy is written, it is that very stance of Mr Sharif that may come to be seen as the key reason for the survival of the democratic order during the past five years. While it is true that President Zardari has proved a canny survivor in a way few could have predicted, it is equally true that his survival skills have not truly been tested by the largest opposition party.

Extended this indirect hand of cooperation, the government needs to demonstrate its own maturity and sense. Sending a senior team to negotiate with Mr Qadri yesterday was a pragmatic and necessary decision, as was the choice to downplay the prime minister’s latest troubles with the Supreme Court. The prize — an on-time election and an orderly transition of power — is within grasp. A clear signal on when elections will be held is needed from the president.