The Pakistan People’s Party government may yet make history as the first elected government to complete its term in Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari appears to have won a battle of wits with Tahir-Ul Qadri, the Canadian-Pakistani who wanted Parliament dissolved and a caretaker government set up. The Constitution provides for a caretaker government to be appointed by the outgoing government in consultation with all political parties. Mr. Qadri, however, wanted it to be set up through consultations with the Army and the judiciary. Moreover, he wanted elections put off until such time as laws were reformed to ensure that the next government would not be corrupt, thus making a case for a long-term interim set-up, most likely with himself at its head. The Barelvi cleric could have been dismissed as a lunatic but for the tens of thousands of people who joined his dharna in the capital, showing that his demands had found popular resonance. That the siege coincided with an arrest order by the Supreme Court against Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraff in a corruption case led to speculation that Pakistan was is in the midst of a well orchestrated “soft coup.” The sudden emergence of Mr. Qadri on Pakistan’s political scene three months before elections are due, and his deep pockets, reinforced suspicion that he had powerful backers. Though the Pakistani Army strenuously distanced itself from him, it has made no secret of its contempt for the PPP government. It is seen to have held its hand so far only because ruling Pakistan directly is fraught with danger to itself. Still, as relations with India plunge into uncertainty, and with the Afghanistan “endgame” on the horizon, the military may not be averse to a malleable proxy.

If Mr. Qadri is indeed that proxy, what seems to have thwarted these designs was the determined and unified decision of opposition political parties against joining hands with him. Leaders such as Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are waiting in the wings for the next election. Their unequivocal stand strengthened the government’s hands. More than that, it showed that Pakistan’s politicians have come a long way since the 1990s, when they were only too eager to fall in line with anti-democratic plots. As of Thursday evening, government representatives were negotiating with Mr. Qadri for a peaceful dispersal of the sit-in. His rally may have fizzled out but he has succeeded in delivering the strong message that a dysfunctional government creates danger for itself, particularly in Pakistan where there is no shortage of political adventurers waiting to step in.

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