Leading article: Retreat from democracy

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The mask of Pakistan's governing regime continues to slip. Representatives of President Pervez Musharraf handed in their candidate's nomination for a new five-year term yesterday. But this formal act of respect for democratic procedure was accompanied by a government ban on public gatherings of more than five people.

Riot police assembled around the Election Commission and Supreme Court in Islamabad. Trucks and shipping containers were installed overnight to block roads leading to the capital. Since the weekend, more than 200 opposition party leaders and members have been arrested. This is not the behaviour of a democratic government.

Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, ordered the immediate release of these political prisoners yesterday, and the government has pledged to comply. But the message was plain enough: dissent against the President's bid for re-election will not be tolerated.

The events of recent days have provided yet more evidence that boasts of a return to democratic rule in Pakistan from President Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, are empty. We saw this in the botched attempt by President Musharraf to fire Mr Chaudhry earlier this year on politically motivated charges. We saw this when the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was deported earlier this month upon arriving from Saudi Arabia, despite a Supreme Court ruling that he should be allowed to return.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether the constitution forbids General Musharraf from standing for election while holding the posts of president and head of the army. Recent decisions from the court would suggest that it is about to rule in the negative. But this is most unlikely to mark the end of the matter. It is believed that General Musharraf will declare a state of emergency if the court blocks his candidacy, setting the seal on Pakistan's retreat from democratic government.

The classic defence in Western capitals of President Musharraf has been that, for all his faults, he is a valuable ally against international terrorism. But the strength of religious fanatics has grown under his rule. There is strong reason to believe that the Pakistani intelligence services are continuing to give covert support to the Taliban. Those militants have a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal belt. And now, as he attempts to shore up his regime against attacks from both disgruntled lawyers and Islamist hardliners, President Musharraf is giving up on even his feeble attempts to present himself as a pluralist political leader.

It is time that the West woke up to the fact that supporting President Musharraf is a policy that has gone badly awry.

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