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Leading article: An imperfect election may offer the best hope

For a man who had spent all his professional life in uniform and seized power in a military coup, Pervez Musharraf's decision to give up command of Pakistan's armed forces, as he did yesterday, was a step whose significance should not be underestimated. As could be seen from his demeanour at the elaborate handover ceremony, it was a move that meant much to him personally. He was also honouring his public promise: to govern, if elected to a third presidential term, as a civilian and not a general.

So this was a key moment in the personal history of President Musharraf and in the political history of Pakistan. But it should have meant far more to Pakistan, and its regional and global standing, than it did. For while General Musharraf was fulfilling his part of a bargain made not just with the voters of Pakistan but with the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, the precise circumstances of his departure from the military made this far less than a return to genuine civilian rule.

Ms Bhutto had returned to Pakistan from exile on the understanding that General Musharraf's inauguration as a civilian President would be a prelude to democratic parliamentary elections. Ms Bhutto's calculations were that her People's Party would have a fair chance of power and she of becoming Prime Minister. What was essentially a power-sharing agreement between them, based on mutual self-interest, was negotiated long and hard. It was overseen some would argue, steered by Washington and London.

Within days of her return, however, the calculations suddenly looked rather different. Already concerned by a series of bomb attacks and mounting street protests against his regime, General Musharraf declared a state of emergency. The size of the triumphal crowds that greeted the return of Ms Bhutto, and the failure of the military and police to prevent an assassination attempt that killed and injured many in her entourage, doubtless accelerated his decision.

But a transfer to civilian rule under emergency conditions is not at all the joyous occasion that it could and should have been. With opposition politicians and journalists locked up, critical judges silenced, and martial law in operation, it is hard to see what real difference there is between Pakistan under a uniformed General Musharraf and Pakistan with a plain Mr President. Ms Bhutto, rightly, terminated her agreement with General Musharraf. She none the less remained in Pakistan and set about campaigning for the parliamentary elections that General Musharraf insisted would go ahead.

At the start of this week, a new element was added to the volatile mix with the return from exile of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister ousted by General Musharraf eight years ago. He, too, received a hero's welcome. That he was permitted to return illustrated more graphically than anything else the change that has occurred in the balance of Pakistan's political forces. His attempt to return two months ago was thwarted by General Musharraf, who defied the ruling of the country's highest court to send him back to Saudi Arabia. Now he is welcome, apparently as a potential foil to Ms Bhutto.

Both former prime ministers have expressed misgivings, again rightly, about a parliamentary election campaign being conducted in emergency conditions. Yet elections, held even in such imperfect circumstances, may represent the best hope for the maintenance of stability, the return of democracy, and the establishment of genuine civilian rule in Pakistan. If elections can be held without turning into a complete travesty of the process, they should be. Most of the alternatives would be worse.