Leading Article: A departing president and an unstable nation

The challenges facing post-Musharraf Pakistan are formidable

Despite the drama surrounding Pervez Musharraf's lengthy resignation address yesterday, there was nothing particularly surprising about the Pakistani President's departure. The truth is that Mr Musharraf was doomed the moment his political base was wiped out in February's parliamentary elections. The former general's support in the country dried up some time ago, and the new coalition government was determined to use the impeachment process to get rid of him. This was a beleaguered politician bowing to the inevitable.

What has defined Mr Musharraf's rule more than anything else has been his relations with the West since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. He presented himself as the world's sheriff in a volatile region, a stance that won him billions of dollars in US military aid. But doubts about the soundness of this investment have been creeping in over the years. Despite some early success in capturing some high-level al-Qa'ida operatives, President Musharraf has been unable to secure Pakistan's western border.

If Mr Musharraf's counter-terrorism achievements have been a disappointment to his Western sponsors, his record as a democrat has simply been an embarrassment. After deposing a corrupt civilian government in a military coup in 1999, Mr Musharraf promised to restore democracy as soon as practically possible. Yet, despite shedding his army uniform last year, Mr Musharraf has done nothing to strengthen the rule of law. By sacking the Chief Justice and imposing a state of emergency last year, he finally gave up all pretence of being a democrat.

The challenges facing the civilian government in the post-Musharraf era are immense. Perhaps the most daunting will be bringing Pakistan's powerful intelligence services, the ISI, under political control. Rumours of secret co-operation between some in the ISI and the Taliban refuse to go away.

The second great security challenge is India. Relations with Pakistan's nuclear-armed eastern neighbour were actually quite good under Mr Musharraf, in large part because the President held Pakistan's army under tight control. But many question the ability of a civilian administration to exert the same level of influence over the generals. Almost as formidable as these challenges is the need to fix Pakistan's economy. Annual inflation is running at 28 per cent and high food prices are stoking popular discontent.

It is hard to be optimistic. The two parties of the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party and the Muslim League, both have a dreadful record of corruption and incompetence in office. And the one thing that has united them in recent months has been the determination to get rid of President Musharraf. It is hard to see what will hold them together now that he has departed.

If there is hope, it lies in Pakistan's increasingly assertive middle class and its outspoken press, both of which will demand honest and efficient government. It is also worth remembering that, despite the extreme image of Pakistan often projected to the outside world, the vast majority of Pakistanis do not favour fundamentalist religious parties. If Pakistan's political leaders can find it within themselves to govern wisely, the materials are there to turn the country round.

It is hard to overstate the geo-political significance of Pakistan, this nuclear power situated in one of the most unstable regions on earth. We need to pray that President Musharraf's successors will do a better job of steering the country away from the abyss.