President general

October 10, 2007

Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf got himself elected president in a country where polls show Osama bin Laden is more popular than he is. Of course, the electorate in last week's balloting was confined to members of the national and regional legislatures. And, oh yes, opposition groups all refused to take part.

Even the U.S. Electoral College is more democratic than that. A recent survey found that the one thing Pakistanis want from their government more than anything else is the development of a system with free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary. Mr. Musharraf is trying to thread an especially tricky needle around that aspiration, and it's not at all clear the Pakistani people will, in the end, put up with it.

His war against al-Qaida in the autonomous Northwest Territories is unpopular, and his war against the Taliban, who were originally sponsored by Pakistan, even more so. Pakistanis view the fighting as "someone else's war," that someone else being George W. Bush, and the morale and effectiveness of the army are reportedly decaying. In August, for instance, more than 200 soldiers and officers surrendered to militants in South Waziristan without putting up a fight.

Tensions between the two dominant ethnic groups - Punjabis, who form the backbone of the officer corps, and Pashtuns, who are most sympathetic to the Taliban and most inclined toward a strict Islamic culture - are growing.

Mr. Musharraf has said he will relinquish his post as chief of the army if the Supreme Court certifies his election as president; the court may well decide that the election is invalid precisely because he held on to his army job. With American encouragement, he is apparently prepared to offer Benazir Bhutto the prime minister's post once again. She is distinctly more popular than he is, though her previous term was marked by flagrant corruption.

All this adds up to a collection of tough challenges. The danger is obvious - that by trying to fit too tight a lid on Islamist militancy, Mr. Musharraf may only encourage its spread. Better than cutting deals with Ms. Bhutto and with his generals and with Washington, Mr. Musharraf should be thinking of ways to restore Pakistan's admittedly intermittent democracy. Most Pakistanis reject extremism, which suggests that the Pakistani people themselves may be better stewards of their future than a finagling general who clings to power could ever hope to be.

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