Drawing all the wrong lessons
Jan 10th 2011, 6:40 by S.S. | ISLAMABAD
JOE BIDEN, America??s vice-president, will pay a visit to Pakistan this week, a Pakistan once again in the grip of crisis. The government and the country itself have been in a shocking state of retreat since the assassination on January 4th of Salman Taseer, a brave and progressive voice from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which leads the governing coalition.
Pakistan??s fragile government is back in business however, if only just barely, after an estranged partner to its coalition agreed to rejoin the administration. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) had quit the coalition on January 2nd, ostensibly in protest at a hike in petrol prices. Its defection had left the coalition as a minority in the benches, prompting predictions of a collapse in the government and possibly even the derailment of civilian rule.
Having forced an unaffordable reversal on petrol prices?ªwhich will mean that fuel will have to be subsidised by government coffers that are already near empty?ªthe MQM rejoined the fold on January 7th. Behind the scenes, the MQM was promised other goodies, including a deal on local government elections that it craved. Watch for the system of town mayoralties to be restored the southern province of Sindh, where the MQM has its following.
Mr Taseer was shot dead by a religious extremist after he stood up for a destitute Christian woman who had been sentenced to death under the country??s blasphemy law. It is hard to imagine a clearer case of political martyrdom than Mr Taseer??s. Yet instead of being galvanised by his death, the PPP has run scared, suddenly eager to ditch his legacy. The next victim of the bloodthirsty mullahs could be Sherry Rehman, a PPP member of parliament who has tabled a private bill to amend the blasphemy law. She too has been accused of blasphemy, like Mr Taseer. A large rally by religious hardliners in Karachi on Sunday?ª50,000, say the police, in support of the blasphemy law itself?ªdwarfed the small showings put on by liberal Pakistanis since Mr Taseer??s death.
Rather than take aim at religious extremism and the mullahs who espouse it, since Mr Taseer??s deathi the PPP has descended into petty squabbling. Even now, the government has not explained to the people that Mr Taseer committed no act of insult to Islam or the prophet Muhammad, as his enemies claimed?ªbut only called for a change to a man-made law. And the PPP has abandoned whatever small hope there was of actually reforming
the blasphemy law, which is routinely abused to settle scores.
??Progressive and secular parties have to take a clear position. By conceding, they??re giving the space to mullahs,?? says Bushra Gohar, a member of parliament for the Awami National Party, a liberal party in the ruling coalition, who had tabled the first private members?? bill in the current parliament to amend blasphemy law. ??It is for political parties to provide leadership.??
Such flashes of leadership are rare. The government is unsteady and will remain so in the foreseeable future. Such is the nature of coalition politics in a country where democracy itself has only shallow roots.