Pakistan's Democratic Moment

America's fears of an Islamist victory in Pakistan have turned out to be unfounded. Despite widespread concerns about compromised balloting, electoral violence and low voter turnout in Monday's elections, Pakistan is now enjoying a moment of democracy and optimism-an exceedingly rare event in its troubled history. Of the 191 seats open in Pakistan's 272-seat parliament, the Pakistan People's Party (the party of Benazir Bhutto) won 87 and the Pakistan Muslim League (the party of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif) won 66. General Pervez Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, captured only 38 seats. The principal Islamist party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, which had fared well in the last election, has taken a severe battering. It is now all but inevitable that sometime in the next few weeks Pakistan will be governed by a coalition regime with the People's Party as the senior partner.

If the country is to tackle its myriad problems of social injustice, political and religious terror and economic inequity, any coalition regime will have to eschew partisan political bickering, set aside any desire, however understandable, to seek revenge against Musharraf and move with dispatch to the tasks of governance. A failure to act in this fashion will leave the country vulnerable to the machinations of the Islamic zealots. It will dissipate the good will of the citizenry, dash their hopes for democracy and contribute to Pakistan's continued political turmoil.

The United States is in a unique position to help Pakistan accomplish these goals. It should, at the outset, sever its lingering ties to Musharraf, who through arrogance, authoritarianism and incompetence, brought his country to its present pass. It needs to distance itself forthrightly from a failed dictator. Any last attempts to bolster Musharraf out of a misplaced sense of loyalty would be both morally flawed and politically imprudent. It would be morally wrong because he stands discredited before the Pakistani electorate. It would be politically inexpedient because a lingering embrace of Musharraf would provide fodder to the forces of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

Consequently, if Musharraf wishes to avoid further embarrassment and humiliation, it is time for him to quietly step away from the political fray. His political future was looking murky in the run-up to the elections; it is now effectively at an end. Despite the Bush administration's long and uncritical support for him, he has abjectly failed to promote internal order and security, he has flouted the most basic tenets of democracy, and he has been at best a fitful ally in the "war on terror." The Bush administration now has an important opportunity to genuinely make good on its long-professed commitment to democracy in the Muslim world.

The task that lies ahead for American policymakers is still daunting. Once the euphoria of the electoral surprise passes, the difficult task of governing a land riven with conflict will loom large. To ensure that the new regime does not lose its drive to deal with the many rifts in the political landscape, the Bush administration needs to assist it in setting critical priorities and pursuing them with vigor. Perhaps the most important of these is to reduce the overweening role of the Pakistani military.

Fortunately, the United States may have a viable partner in this endeavor. Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the current chief of staff, seems interested in refocusing the military's attention to its core task, the maintenance of the country's security. To that end the administration needs to work with him to restore the independence of the judiciary, allow the free functioning of political parties, lift the remaining curbs on the press, end the militarization of civil administration and devote greater resources to addressing critical social needs such as health and education.

This agenda is ambitious, but anything less will remain mired in the politics of religious extremism, violence and continued political upheaval. Such conditions, which were becoming endemic in Musharraf's final days, had compromised the pursuit of vital American interests in Pakistan, most notably the efforts to suppress the neo-Taliban and eviscerate Al Qaeda. Given the opportunity that this election has provided, the administration can ill afford to fritter it away.