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New Peril in a Shaky Pakistan

If army seizes power again, bid for democracy is likely to stall

November 06, 1996

Dismissal of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto threatens the strategic South Asian nation's shaky hold on democracy once again. But if Bhutto accomplished little for Pakistan during her latest term in office, the army will not do more. It should stay in the barracks.

Pakistan's president ousted Bhutto and dissolved the lower house of Parliament Tuesday, saying her government had allowed corruption, undermined the judiciary and permitted illegal killings in an effort to stop appalling street violence in and around the southern city of Karachi. Thousands have been killed in the past two years.

The dismissal was constitutional, and the army, though clearly briefed on what would happen, remained in the shadows. If that situation prevails and if elections are held in February as promised, prospects are fair that Pakistan can continue its flirtation with democracy.

Bhutto was ousted as prime minister in 1990 by a different president after she was in office two years. She fought her way back to power and remains leader of the political party founded by her father, Zulfikar, who was deposed by the army in 1977 and later hanged.

The army has run the impoverished nation for about half the 49 years since it gained independence from Britain. The army has a record of corruption as poor as that of civilian governments, and its share of the budget has strained Pakistan's finances. The military has trained guerrillas to fight in Afghanistan and lost three wars with India. Because both India and Pakistan are thought capable of assembling nuclear weapons, the state of their relationship is of great concern to all nations.

Bhutto and her Cabinet ministers, including her husband, who is a main target of corruption charges and was arrested when she was dismissed, could be barred from government. If that happens, her party should be allowed to run another candidate in February. All political parties would do well to concentrate their efforts on polling booths, not street demonstrations, which in the past have quickly turned violent. Free elections like those that brought Bhutto back to power in 1993 could leave Pakistan stronger in facing its enormous problems.

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