Leading Article: Democracy clings on in Pakistan

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The Independent Online
JUST when Pakistan was beginning to look ungovernable, its politicians have been given another chance to save the cause of democracy. The latest turn of events shows that the army remains the power behind the scenes and that, under its present leadership, it has the country's best interests at heart. It was the military that put pressure on both President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif to resign virtually simultaneously on Sunday. A vicious power struggle between the two men had reduced the country to near chaos.

The crisis began in April, when Mr Ishaq Khan exercised his right to dismiss the Prime Minister - on the same grounds of corruption and nepotism that he had dismissed Benazir Bhutto in 1990. A month later the country's Supreme Court ruled the dismissal unlawful. Mr Sharif returned triumphant. But the President's fresh moves to undermine him led to a breakdown of authority in the country's four provinces.

Had such a scenario been acted out in the Seventies or Eighties, the army would undoubtedly have declared martial law and taken over once again: generals or air marshals have ruled the country for 24 of its 46 years. Yet grim though the situation had become, it decided not to do so. Among its reasons were, no doubt, a genuine belief that democracy should be kept alive in Pakistan, and a strong desire to avoid the odium that a seizure of power would inspire at home and abroad. That restraint marks a significant shift away from the old pattern of Pakistan's history. The decision to install two respected non-politicians as acting president and prime minister, and to call elections for early October, gives the politicians a chance restore their low reputations.

With the outgoing Prime Minister attributing his downfall to the conspiracies of 'drawing-room' plotters and promising open war with Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), optimism does not come easily. Ms Bhutto's own record in office between 1988 and 1990, when nothing was done for those suffering from the country's feudalism, was very disappointing - hence Mr Sharif's big victory in the 1990 elections. In approving Mr Ishaq Khan's dismissal of her great rival in April, she once again seemed to be putting her own interests above those of democracy.

One unresolved issue in Pakistani politics is the balance of power between the president and prime minister. Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, took many of the presidency's powers with him when he stepped down to become Prime Minister in 1973. General Zia ul-Haq, his eventual executor, assumed quasi-dictatorial powers, and introduced the fateful Eighth Amendment. Mr Sharif's attempt to challenge it turned his former benefactor against him. Yet far more important to the people of Pakistan than all this power play in Islamabad is that the country should be governed with a semblance of justice and efficiency. Unless the politicians observe the ground rules of democracy, they will never achieve even that limited goal.