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A spectacle ends

January 18, 2013

WHAT changed four days later? The ECP remained intact. So did the assemblies and the government. The process of appointing a caretaker government remained essentially unchanged. The conditions for individuals contesting polls will continue to be those listed in the constitution already. This being Pakistan, we had plenty of conspiracy theories, from threats from anti-democracy forces to the ruling party trying to set up a political spoiler in Punjab. But did anything useful come of the drama the country has been alternately captivated by and exhausted of these last few days?

For one, both the opposition and the ruling coalition managed to pull some maturity out of their hats. In the final analysis, the opposition didn’t take the opportunity to destabilise the current set-up, instead declaring their stand against unconstitutional moves while still pointing out the many ways in which the administration has failed the people of Pakistan. The ruling party managed an important balancing act, refraining from physically restraining the protesters as they made their way closer to parliament and responding to Dr Qadri with a commission high-profile enough to demonstrate that it took him seriously, but ultimately without allowing any disruptions of the constitution. The familiar accountability-before-elections concept wasn’t allowed to delay a democratic transition — at least not yet — but Dr Qadri’s demands, if implemented, might yet lead to closer scrutiny of election candidates and a weeding out of at least the obviously rotten ones.

And while it may have ended with a whimper, in many ways the protest strengthened the system it was suspected — and not unjustifiably, given Pakistan’s history of establishment interference — of threatening. Tens of thousands of people, some with their children, took out several days from life and work to suffer the Islamabad winter. They may not have fully understood the maulana’s demands any more than the rest of us did, and many, if not most, were simply following the orders of their spiritual leader. But they were also there in a democratic spirit: to register their grievances against an elected government. Many of the problems they listed — corruption, lack of law and order, energy shortages, unemployment — are precisely the kinds of things that a nation has the right to complain about. Dr Qadri’s series of unreasonable deadlines and his shifting agendas may have been irresponsible. But in a country where a mob of a few dozen people cannot express outrage without violence or rioting, the conduct of his followers did stand out as an example of Pakistanis peacefully exercising their democratic right to protest.