Pakistan's new rule

Musharraf: Soldier talks of path to democracy, but he shows no hurry to lead his nation to it.

October 20, 1999

GEN. Pervaiz Musharraf has consolidated power over the eighth largest nation, Pakistan. What he will do with it is anyone's guess. He said some of the right things in his first major address Sunday, to reassure 140 million Pakistanis and a skeptical world. What matters, however, is what he does.

Already, some Pakistani troops have withdrawn from India's border, where they went during fighting in Kashmir and nuclear testing last spring. None are being pulled from the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir. General Musharraf reaffirmed support for Kashmiri insurrectionists. Indian tensions remain.

Hints are dropped elsewhere that the deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had conspired during the coup last Thursday to kill General Musharraf and now faces trial for high treason. An execution would not reassure the world or persuade the Commonwealth of Nations to reverse its decision Monday to oust Pakistan.

Creating an authoritarian regime, General Musharraf offered seven priorities, including a vaguely worded restoration of the economy to reassure investors. "This is not martial law," he said unpersuasively, "just another path toward democracy." He set no timetable for moving along that path.

The people don't seem to mind, so far. Eleven years of alternating between Mr. Sharif and the now-exiled Benazir Bhutto as elected prime ministers has left them jaded. They believe each's accusation of the other's corruption. Both flubbed the chief duty of an elected leader of a fragile democracy, which is to strengthen faith in the institution. This is the lesson of Pakistan for leaders of fragile democracies elsewhere.

The United States and world institutions have little choice. They are not going to overthrow the new strongman. They will judge him largely on his international conduct, hoping he defuses the arms race, reduces tensions with India and prods Afghanistan to greater freedom. The issue for the world is whether to renew or cancel rollover loans for the massively indebted nation. This need not be decided overnight.

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