Leading article: Is it democracy that is stirring?

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The Independent Online

Something is stirring in Pakistan, but the full import of what is happening is as yet hard to divine. We still seem to be watching only shadows on the wall. President Pervez Musharraf is talking, through envoys, to Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and opposition leader who lives in exile.

Ms Bhutto is letting it be known that she has set conditions for returning to her home country. They include Mr Musharraf's agreement to resign as head of the army and Pakistan's speedy return, through elections, to democratic rule. Mr Musharraf's price for such a deal would be the chance of another term as president. Despite a welter of speculation, there was no certainty last night that the deal was done, or even near to being done.

Meanwhile Pakistan's Supreme Court has ruled that the country's last elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, may return to Pakistan eight years after being removed in Mr Musharraf's military coup. He has announced his intention of returning home in two weeks' time. The court ruling was the latest sign of defiance at the top of Pakistan's judiciary. Only one month before, the same court had ordered the reinstatement of the country's chief justice, who had been suspended on probably spurious charges by the President. Increasingly, Pakistan seems to have acquired something akin to an independent judiciary.

Mr Sharif's return and the impending Musharraf-Bhutto deal could set up an election contested by parties led by these two former prime ministers. It is an intriguing prospect. But is it realistic to hope for such an election, and if it is, could it be free and fair? Do Mr Musharraf's overtures to Ms Bhutto suggest that he sees her as potentially the better prime minister, or as the lesser threat to his rule? Will he agree to relinquish his military uniform? And what of Ms Bhutto's demands to boost parliamentary power vis-à-vis that of the President?

That Mr Musharraf is talking to anyone suggests an acknowledgement of weakness. The judiciary is deserting him. The US recently admitted that its troops had crossed into Pakistan's territory from Afghanistan without first informing the authorities. There is widespread impatience in the US and Europe to see Pakistan return to civilian rule. But undermining his already weak authority might precipitate the sort of military intervention that brought him to power.

We could be watching the start of Pakistan's return to democracy, or the end of Pervez Musharraf's rule; we could indeed be watching both. But we could also be watching the advent of something much longer drawn-out and messier. Until the uncertainty is resolved, Pakistan's well-wishers should hope for the best, while preparing for the worst.