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A Step Back in Pakistan

Today, Pakistani police placed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest and surrounded her Islamabad residence with barbed wire. The former prime minister had planned to defy a government ban and speak to a rally in the nearby city of Rawalpindi, but security forces twice refused to let her leave her home. Police sealed off both Islamabad and Rawalpindi as the week-long political crisis, triggered by strongman Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, deepened.

Bhutto’s confinement followed on the heels of yesterday’s promise by the Pakistani leader to hold parliamentary elections before February 15. The White House quickly praised the announcement: “We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people.”

Pakistan, of course, needs elections. Yet Musharraf’s allies can win any contest he stages, especially if Bhutto is cooling her heels inside her home and her allies remain jailed. What democracy requires, in addition to Bhutto’s release, is the release of jurists from jail, a restoration of the Supreme Court, and a decision as to whether Musharraf, constitutionally speaking, could have run for President in the October election. Observers argue that he could not have run, because he retained his post as army chief. In fact, some believe the general locked down the country last Saturday because he heard the Supreme Court was about to rule against him regarding his election this fall.

The Bush administration repeatedly has asked Musharraf to “take off his uniform.” That would be a step forward. But the most important thing would be for him to take a step back and allow judicial and electoral processes to work as they should.


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