The coup that deposed Pakistan’s prime minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, was a long time coming. It had many causes, the most immediate of which was the animosity between Mr. Sharif and the military. But by almost every measure, Mr. Sharif’s term in office has been a disaster. That does not excuse the military’s decision to take measures into its own hands, however. Pakistan’s military should return to the barracks, and let a civilian Cabinet take office. Stability will come to Pakistan only when all its leaders — civilian and military — accept the limits of constitutional government.

Mr. Sharif’s fall is especially disheartening. He came to power in 1997 with a large parliamentary majority. Voters had hoped that he would continue the reforms he had begun during his first term in office and would rescue the country’s sinking economy. Voters also looked for stability. None of the previous three governments had completed their five-year terms; each was dismissed by the president on charges of corruption. Mr. Sharif had been one of them.

With a large majority in hand, Mr. Sharif went quickly to work. One of his first moves was amending the constitution to end the president’s power to dismiss a Cabinet. While that may have been popular, Mr. Sharif then proceeded to eliminate every source of possible opposition to his rule. Party members were forced to toe the party leader’s — Mr. Sharif’s — line, and the heads of independent institutions such as the supreme court and the armed forces were replaced with the prime minister’s men. Finally, laws promoting freedom of the press were revoked and tax authorities went after publishers.

After accumulating all that power, Mr. Sharif did little positive with it. The prime minister seemed more interested in settling vendettas with political rivals than improving Pakistan’s lot. His reforms evaporated. The country’s economy sank under $32 billion in foreign debt and skyrocketing unemployment. Violence between rival Muslim groups has been intensifying. In the last two weeks, more than 30 people have been killed.

The final straw was the prime minister’s decision to sack the armed forces chief, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf. Even though Mr. Sharif engineered the general’s rise to the top of the military, the two men had been at loggerheads for some time. Gen. Musharraff had distanced himself from the “bus diplomacy” that Mr. Sharif conducted with his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Relations were strained to the breaking point when Mr. Sharif agreed — under pressure from the United States — to withdraw support for guerrillas who had infiltrated Indian-controlled territory in the Kargil last summer. The episode allowed India to portray Pakistan as irresponsible; the retreat embarrassed the army. Mr. Sharif and the military had been pointing fingers ever since.

The trigger for Tuesday’s coup was the announcement that Gen. Musharraff had been dismissed as he was returning from a visit to Sri Lanka. It is unclear what prompted Mr. Sharif to strike; perhaps he was emboldened by a warning that the U.S. had issued last month against a coup in Pakistan. This time, however, the military was not constrained.

As we go to press, it is unclear who will govern Pakistan. Mr. Sharif and his Cabinet are under arrest. The military says it has no interest in taking power. That statement should be taken with a grain of salt; the military has ruled Pakistan for 25 of the 52 years it has been independent. Another round of parliamentary elections should be held as soon as possible to create a new government with a popular mandate.

Whoever comes to power has been put on notice: The military may prefer to stay out of politics, but it still believes that it is the ultimate power in Pakistan. That would appear to set some very definite limits on the powers of the prime minister — and bodes ill for prospects for peace in South Asia.

Mr. Sharif’s efforts to reign in the military and reach some form of detente with India seem to have been the most troubling for the generals. The retreat from the Kargil, the failure to respond in kind to the shooting-down of a Pakistani reconnaissance plane weeks later and Mr. Sharif’s apparent willingness to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — at the urging of the U.S. — all infuriated the men in uniform. So, too, did Mr. Sharif’s efforts to cut ties with radical Islamic forces in Afghanistan who have allies in the middle ranks of Pakistan’s Army. The West likes to think that it has leverage over decision-making in Islamabad because of the country’s dire economic straits; the lesson in this week’s coup is that influence is limited.

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