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On to the next stage

March 10, 2013

DARE whisper it now: we’re there. On the verge of that much sought after civilian-led transition, or a re-endorsement of the last five years.

Here’s the credit — or blame — they each get for getting us to this point: Zardari, 40 per cent; Sharif, 40 per cent; Kayani, 20 per cent.

Zardari because he learned to say both yes and no: yes, to whatever price whoever had a chance of knocking him and his government out demanded; no, to the politics of vendettas.

Sharif because he learned to say yes: yes, to letting a government complete its term, and absorbing whatever hurt came his way for having the gumption to say yes.

Kayani because he chose to say neither yes nor no: sitting on the fence, poking and prodding on occasion but never actually getting off the fence.

Because of those three, and the choices they’ve made, we’re here: with a rickety elected system — democratic being a stretch, for now — with some hope of continuity.

A back-to-back and on-time election is now as close to a certainty as anything can be in the land of uncertainty. Should, then, we pause to celebrate the implausible and applaud the protagonists?

Fuggedboutit. This is Pakistan; this is democracy — what comes next matters more than what came before.

So out comes the crystal ball and into May and beyond we gaze.

The civilians got their election, the army let them have it, the Taliban weren’t able to derail it — now what?

Parliament is hung. Sharif looked like he may run away with it but Pakistan — and Imran — held him back.

Punjab is still Sharif Land, but gone are the days of the Heavy Mandate: we’re firmly in the Era of Coalitions.

The coalition maestro, Zardari, has been relegated to second, still in with a shot for re-election as president and still in charge of Sindh (minus Karachi) but shunted across the aisle — from the treasury to the opposition — in parliament.

The shoe is now on the other foot.

Gen K is going home — he’s told everyone he’s going home — but he’s got six months left as Chief Guardian of Pakistan.

Zardari, 40; Sharif, 40; Kayani, 20 — the old percentages, credit and blame, start anew.

Here’s the doomsday scenario:

Sharif the Democrat fails as Sharif the Coalition Builder. Hung parliament becomes paralysed parliament. One seventy two — the elusive number for prime minister and the keys to the semi-promised land — is unattainable.

Elsewhere, it’s too late for the caretakers to stop the economy from sliding towards IMF oblivion. Law and order, already a mess, slips a few notches further towards catastrophe.

The barbarians are billeted inside, long since done with waiting at the gates. The external environment, shaped by the exit from Afghanistan and the election in India, takes a turn for the worse.

Kayani now has the same choice but in new circumstances: carpe diem — seize the day — or permit national death by drift and paralysis.

Say Kayani chooses the same again: if the civilians sink, they’ll do it under their own weight, not be pushed; if they stay afloat again, Allah be praised and let’s everyone strap ourselves in for another helluva ride.

The choice — to let the elected system (remember, democratic is a stretch) continue as it was meant to — then switches to Zardari.

Stung by an electoral defeat everyone warned him of but he refused to believe, Zardari is feverishly doing his math.

Start with the certainty: the Senate is locked in till March 2015 and the PPP has close to a simple majority there; the PML-N a very distant second.

Zardari’s passive option: he can sit back and enjoy the show as Sharif runs here, there and everyone to get even basic legislation passed, the PPP effectively enjoying a veto with its near-majority in the upper house.

Non-aggression but also non-cooperation — Zardari can just let Sharif’s gung-ho, go-it-alone instinct undo an N-League government all on its own.

The active option: Zardari can lure last-term’s allies into cobbling together a minority government — just enough votes to get the PM elected and a cabinet sworn-in but too few to guarantee any kind of stability beyond the shortest of short terms.

That would be Zardari unable to live with the shoe on the other foot, to extend the same democratic courtesy to Sharif that Sharif extended to him.

On to Sharif: he’s got his government, he’s back as PM, he’s learned a new trick or two — but has he learned enough?

Nominating Kayani’s successor is an early critical decision.

The usual decision process — though there’s nothing usual about something that last happened in 1990s: the chief gives the PM three names, giving the appearance of choice but in reality, the preferred candidate is made known.

Sharif is torn. He could be aggressive and reject all the nominees, opting for what he thinks is a pliant chief he’ll be comfortable with. Or he could go with the preferred nominee and learn to co-exist with a “professional” chief who may have ideas of his own.

There’s another early minefield Sharif has to navigate: seeing out the last few months of another chief — CJ Iftikhar — with a penchant for activism and a perceived reluctance to leave the bully pulpit.

Zardari learned to submit to his flagellation, but will Sharif, Heir to the Mughal Throne, also learn to submit, or will he unleash his dogs of war?

Why all this hypothesising now about a future no one can really know, you may be wondering. Why not focus on how we’ll get through election season, or why the speculation that there won’t be one after all refuses to go away, you may be thinking.

Because perhaps the best way to stop something is to let it happen.

You got your election, you got your politicians, you got your government — and look, it’s more screwed up than ever.

The Bangladesh model doesn’t die with a mere election, or even two.

The writer is a member of staff. cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm