Leading article: A fresh start, and cautious hopes for a nation's future

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The Independent Online

In the hours and days after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, the prospects for Pakistan looked as bleak as for many a year. Just three months later, the darkest of the clouds seems to be lifting. It would be too optimistic to hazard that, perhaps, Ms Bhutto's death had not been in vain. But there are, for the first time, a few rays of light on the horizon.

Yesterday saw three developments that many would have thought inconceivable. The country's newly elected parliament approved Yousaf Raza Gilani as the next Prime Minister. The former parliamentary speaker was the candidate of the late Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party that had emerged as the largest party from last month's postponed elections. Mr Gilani commands wide respect, both within his party and beyond, not least because he repeatedly refused to abandon the People's Party, despite a succession of inducements from Pervez Musharraf to deal with him instead.

The second development was Mr Gilani's pledge, in his acceptance speech, to order the release of all judges detained under President Musharraf's emergency rule. Given that it was a revolt by certain outspoken judges that precipitated the emergency in the first place, this promise constituted a direct challenge to Mr Musharraf. In making his position so clear, Mr Gilani set down a marker for his government, establishing where he saw the dividing line between presidential and parliamentary power.

The third development was, if anything, the most remarkable. Within hours of Mr Gilani's speech, the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was released from prison. He had been held since November, when the President apparently feared that the Supreme Court would rule his re-election to the presidency unconstitutional. Mr Chaudhry's freedom not only signalled that, as Prime Minister, Mr Gilani would be able to exert real power, it also suggested that President Musharraf had meant what he said recently, when he expressed his readiness to work with the elected government.

At best, all this presages a new climate of hope for Pakistan. The country now has a parliament that was elected reasonably freely and fairly. It has a prime minister who has a clear sense of what he wants to do. As he said yesterday: "My past experience in parliament has shown me that if you want this country to work, the parliament must be supreme, the constitution must be sacred, and the rule of law enforced." It is on the way to having a coalition government with a common sense of purpose, at least in terms of its differences with the President. And it has a president whose political weakness – and perhaps his patriotic concern as well – inclines him to accept a constitutional settlement in which the (civilian) head of state exerts less day-to-day power.

Any new settlement, of course, will be fragile. The coalition promises to be as solid as any coalition in Pakistan could be, but this does not mean that it will easily survive early disagreements. While Mr Gilani stressed yesterday that he intended to serve a full term, some believe that the PPP leader (and Ms Bhutto's widower), Asif Ali Zardari, will bid for the post, if and when he wins a parliamentary seat. And Pakistan's military is an unknown quantity. The top brass remained quiescent when Mr Musharraf exchanged his uniform for a suit on being re-elected president. It is not at all clear that this detachment would last in the event of a major terrorist assault or serious unrest in the tribal regions.

It would be a brave prophet who foresaw an untroubled future for Pakistan as from today. But stability suddenly looks a far more plausible proposition than it did at the beginning of this year.