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Patience in Pakistan

Musharraf's voluntary departure is good news. Real democracy, though, may take some time.

August 20, 2008

Democracy has not been a roaring success in Pakistan. When Pervez Musharraf seized power from a democratically elected government in a 1999 military coup, there was nearly as much celebration in the streets as there was on Monday when he announced his resignation as president, so corrupt and unpopular were the kleptocrats he unseated.

Yet for all the worries that the country's new democratic leaders will fail as spectacularly as the old ones did, Pakistan and the world have ample reason to cheer Monday's events. Military dictators don't often voluntarily cede power to civilian authorities. And, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, although democracy in Pakistan has proved to be a particularly messy form of government, it still beats all the others that have been tried.

In Washington, the biggest worry following Musharraf's departure concerns Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism, particularly in combating Islamist militants who cross the border to battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Yet Musharraf was an unreliable ally at best on that front, and ever since he stepped down as head of Pakistan's army last year, he has been a less important partner in the fight against the Taliban than the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. The latter is seen as an ally with strong ties to the CIA, so U.S. counter-terrorism officials don't foresee changes in the military relationship, at least in the short term.

More problematic is the future of the country's government. About the only thing Pakistan's fractious ruling coalition can agree on is its disdain for Musharraf. Now a bruising fight for the presidency is underway between the two strongest parties: the Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, and the Muslim League-N, led by Nawaz Sharif. Either of these men would prove disastrous as Musharraf's successor. Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is reputed to have accumulated a fortune by collecting bribes and kickbacks when his wife was in power, while Sharif's two terms as prime minister were marked by corruption, power grabs and suspensions of civil liberties, culminating with his displacement by Musharraf's coup.

There are other candidates in the running, but it's unclear whether any has the expertise to cope with the country's most daunting challenges -- runaway inflation, religious extremism and ongoing conflict with India. The political strife to come will probably make many Pakistanis nostalgic for the relative stability of military rule. Yet democracy can and will work even in parts of the world where so far it has seemed a dismal failure. All it takes is a little patience; Pakistan's people and army just need to provide it.

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