President Asif Ali Zardari has mocked his main political rivals, the PML-N, calling the party’s leaders, President Mian Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz, who is also the party’s Punjab chief, emigrants. Whether he meant this just politically, as they were, he said, camping on Lahore, which was actually PPP territory, or personally, when he said that they had to take their father’s corpse to Data Darbar to raise a funeral congregation, the Sharif brothers should realize that they have brought it on themselves. When they launched a campaign earlier in the year for his removal, and attacked him personally for corruption, they should have expected him to respond. That he chose his address to the Punjab PPP Executive Council on Thursday at the Governor’s House, Lahore, only meant that he was responding on their home ground, in their native city, which had been their provincial capital.

President Zardari’s remarks, as well as the reaction by PML-N leaders that followed, well illustrated the barrenness, even the irrelevance of this exchange of personal attacks. PML-N leaders, like Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, were quick to jump to the defence of the Sharif brothers, with Rana Sana saying that the President had not seen his own father in hospital during his final illness. However, though the Sharifs had the excuse that they were speaking about the damage the President was doing to the country, now there is nothing affecting the public welfare in the current exchanges. However, it has come as a handy excuse for both sides to avoid the issues, for the PPP to avoid explaining how they were not tackled during its period in office, and for the PML-N to avoid explaining the solutions it plans to implement for these problems. The debate on the issues gains particular relevance now, in what is the last possible year before the next general election, when both parties will have to face the electorate, and easy assurances by the President of a PPP victory, will not come true unless the party can present more than just personal attacks.

At the same time, the PML-N should not assume that, just because it is in the opposition, the electorate will turn to it on trust. It must demonstrate that it has solutions to the problems of the people. The solutions may not come easy to either party, but the problems are obvious and simple: persistent inflation, energy loadshedding, surrender of sovereignty in someone else’s war on Muslims, and massive governmental corruption are among the problems bothering people for so long, and for which people demand solutions. It is no longer feasible for the parties to substitute exchanges of attacks for the process of thought that is essential to solving the many problems the country faces. If the main parties do not learn this lesson, they could find themselves elbowed aside in the next election.