Mar 14, 2009

Long-distance decisions

It is obvious the US has been keeping a close eye to the political stew boiling up here and is calling for the burner to be turned off before the cauldron bubbles over. According to reports, the prime minister has been asked to step in and persuade the president to move towards reconciliation within days or even hours. It is not clear what will happen if this bid fails. But the threat posed is quite clear; we all know what happens when civilian governments fail. The military – for quite obvious reasons – is concerned and has made its opinions clear. If things continue as they are, it may feel it has no choice but to step in.

Much of what happens will hinge around the actions of one man. President Asif Ali Zardari has shown himself to be a stubborn man, senselessly carrying on with an agenda chosen by himself and his coterie of advisers. He has been unable to see the crisis the country has been lurching towards. Indeed, his actions have led us straight into it. The president's lack of sensitivity to feelings within his own party has led to the emergence of a distinct rift within its ranks – and this factor too is significant in the approach now being adopted by the PM.

The next 48 hours or so are bound to be fascinating. With powerful allies inside and outside the country backing him, Prime Minister Gilani appears to be preparing to play what he believes could be a historic role. His desire for stability and his success in keeping up ties with the PML-N augur well. We must hope that he can now perform a kind of miracle more often associated with pirs than politicians, and pull back the country from the very brink. If he fails, it seems quite evident we can bid farewell to democracy and stability for some time to come. Despite mass arrests and bullying tactics, the lawyers remain determined. Civil society has placed itself firmly behind them; the PML-N has emerged as a party of heroes and in Punjab people scoff derisively at the notion of an alliance between the PPP and the "Qatil" League. President Zardari's strategy of confrontation has failed. It has indeed added to the perils we face. Only a decision by him to take a few strides back can save us from further chaos.

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