Democracy is welcome but fragile in Pakistan
Pervez Musharraf has resigned as president of Pakistan, triggering a parliamentary election for president next month.
PAKISTAN has been one of the United States' key allies under President Pervez Musharraf in the war against terrorism, but his successor could become more effective in that role. Musharraf, the military dictator who resigned to avoid impeachment, will be replaced in democratic elections that should bring more public accountability without lessening anti-terrorist efforts in a country that harbors Osama bin Laden.
That will not come easy in a nation with widespread poverty, radical Islamist strains and 55 nuclear weapons. A Pakistan poll taken in the summer of last year showed Musharraf's approval rating at 38 percent, President Bush's at 9 percent and bin Laden's at 46 percent. By the end of the year, Musharraf's had slipped to 30 percent.
The upcoming election is likely to pit a candidate from the Pakistan Muslim League-N party headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif against one from the Pakistan People's Party, co-chaired by Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who was assassinated in December, probably by Islamic extremists.
Although Sharif and Zardari have had a polarized relationship, their parties comprised a parliamentary coalition that forced Musharraf to step down, but the coalition took only a day after Musharraf's resignation to deteriorate. The parliament must elect Musharraf's successor within 30 days. In the meantime, Pakistan will be ruled by Senate leader Mohammedmian Soomro, a member of Musharraf's party.
Neither Sharif nor Bhutto became head of a pre-existing party. Instead, the parties were created around them, demonstrated by the automatic elevation of Zardari to his slain wife's leadership position. That does not bode well for a stable democracy.
In addition, both Sharif and Bhutto were accused of corruption during their years as prime ministers. Musharraf's bloodless coup that unseated Sharif in 1999 and sent him into exile for corruption received broad public support.
Musharraf initially supported Afghanistan's Taliban but rejected it in favor of U.S. alignment following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on the U.S. His efforts led to the arrest of senior al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan's mountainous northwest tribal areas, but his leadership was harsh and dictatorial in too many ways.
Musharraf's army siege last year against the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing 105 people, caused a surge in Islamic militancy. His ouster of 60 judges and declaration of martial law when the Supreme Court met to rule on the legality of his re-election as president further aggravated the public.
The United States will have an important role in helping Pakistan strengthen its internal party democracy while recognizing the army as its strongest government institution, necessary in combating terrorists.