March’s on?

March’s on?

Pakistan’s current crisis poses longer-term questions to its politicians

Monday will test Pakistan’s government. Formulae attesting to a soft reconciliation between President Asif Ali Zardari and his political opponent,Nawaz Sharif,are in the air. But so complex is the matrix of the causes and agenda appended to the lawyers’ “long march” to seek the reinstatement of judges

deposed by Pervez Musharraf in November 2007 that a sense of uncertainty attaches itself to these forecasts. Sharif is defying the reported order of house arrest against him and other political opponents of Zardari,and says he will proceed with the long march on Islamabad to culminate in the sit-in outside the national assembly. Lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan makes a similar statement of resolve.

Sunday’s fresh troubles came after more than a flicker of hope when Zardari,under exceedingly open American pressure,held a meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Saturday and decided to move the Pakistan supreme court,challenging the ruling that barred Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif from electoral politics,and led to an instant imposition of governor’s rule in the province. Among concessions to the PML-N being floated are a plan to reinstate judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf,including

former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. It is a different matter altogether that Sharif has rejected Zardari’s offer of talks and stuck to the protest mode. Marches,long or short,and sit-ins are political tools and a clampdown on protest could weaken Zardari’s position. Or could it be that he still hopes to ride out the crisis?

The crisis and the ways in which Zardari is reaching out to the Sharifs for a backdown are reflective of the peculiarities of Pakistan’s politics today. Even as their parties fought each other in Pakistan’s elections more than a year ago,Zardari and Sharif forged an alliance of sorts,aimed at bringing stability to whatever political formation took power in Islamabad. The backdrop for that election compelled this alliance; after almost a decade of Musharraf’s rule,directly or by political proxies,this was a fragile moment. The restoration of democracy was hard-won. Zardari must wonder what mis-steps he took,how much and how quickly he tried to over-reach,to not just put in peril his opponent’s future but also

his own.