Had Benazir Bhutto lived, it would have all been much simpler. The leadership vacuum in the Pakistan People’s Party after her assassination was never more obvious than when the time came to choose a Prime Minister. That it took more than a month for the PPP after winning the February 18 election to make a decision on this is a reflection of Asif Ali Zardari’s abundant caution in balancing his own ambitions as the leader of the single largest party with the demands of various sections within as well as the interests of its coalition partners. His plans for the future may have had something to do with the sidelining of party stalwart Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a respected leader in Sindh. Amid rifts in the party as several names popped up for the premiership, Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani represented the widest consensus. The former Speaker is respected for doing five years in jail on controversial corruption charges under the Musharraf regime. He belongs to Punjab but is acceptable in Sindh because of his family connections to the Sufi saint, Musa Pak. The sulking Mr. Fahim had fewer objections to him than to the others in the race. Mr. Gillani is from southern Punjab, so the Pakistan Muslim League (N), the PPP’s most important coalition partner, does not see him threatening its strongholds in central and northern Punjab. In any case, he is not the kind of party leader who will or can challenge the political authority of Mr. Zardari.
The Prime Minister-elect has certainly raised democratic spirits by committing himself and his government to protect the 1973 Constitution, strengthen democratic institutions, ensure the independence of the judiciary and the media, and work to make parliament a sovereign body. The swift removal of the barricades in front of the houses of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and other superior judges under house arrest in Islamabad is a sign of things to come. There is little doubt that Mr. Zardari as well as PML (N) leader Nawaz Sharif will have a substantial say in the running of the new government. With three other parties in the coalition – the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Quami Movement, and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami – it will be virtually a national government. This can enable the widest possible consensus on the crucial problems that face the nation, of which terrorism and extremism top the list. Of course, there is the challenge of dealing with President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s mainstream political leaders have shown they can sagaciously unite on critical issues. There will be plenty more situations in the coming days when their democratic credentials and capabilities will be tested. Their time starts now.