Mr. Musharraf’s misrule

In a move reminiscent of the Vietnam-era logic that justified destroying a village to save it from communism, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has suspended his country’s constitution for the sake of saving its democracy. That decision is only the latest in a series of missteps that have undermined the government in Islamabad and contributed to instability in Pakistan.

Mr. Musharraf must reverse course. He should end the state of emergency, release political prisoners, take off his uniform and hold national elections before Feb. 15, 2008, as promised.

Mr. Musharraf’s tenure as president has been stormy. He took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, arguing that he had to depose then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to save the country from corruption, incompetence and creeping Islamic fundamentalism. That move was initially greeted with some relief — his views were shared by many inside and outside Pakistan — but over time there has been growing dissatisfaction with him and his government. He has exiled opposition leaders, rigged elections, packed the country’s supreme court and suspended judges when they angered him.

The final straw came Nov. 3 when he suspended the constitution, fired most of the country’s judges — the judiciary had been the only institutional source of serious opposition to his rule — and rounded up and arrested most of the political opposition. It is estimated that several thousand people have been detained.

It is thought that Mr. Musharraf took his fateful emergency step to keep the Supreme Court from ruling on the validity of his re-election last month as president; opposition leaders have challenged the outcome, arguing that the constitution prevented an army chief from being elected.

Mr. Musharraf had refused to resign as head of the armed forces, fearing that he needed to maintain that role to safeguard his presidency. He has promised to step down as military chief before being sworn in for his next term, but that was unlikely to assuage the Supreme Court. To ensure that the court would not be an obstacle, he dissolved it.

The move has been greeted with universal condemnation; unfortunately, the protests have not been that loud at home except among groups of lawyers and judges. Mr. Musharraf’s efforts to crack down on domestic opposition has largely succeeded. There have been scattered demonstrations but nothing substantial.

Ms. Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People’s Party and a key opposition leader, has threatened to lead mass protests, even though Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Musharraf are reputed to have cut a power-sharing deal. Apparently, the president is taking no chances, as even Ms. Bhutto was belatedly put under house detention for a time.

International criticism has been considerably more vocal. Most important, the United States, which has resolutely stood behind Mr. Musharraf as a key ally in the war against terror, has insisted that he take off his uniform and hold national elections before Feb. 15 as promised. The demand for the return of constitutional order is leavened by the quiet reassurance that U.S. aid will continue. Britain, meanwhile, has said it will review its aid to Pakistan, and the Netherlands has suspended its assistance, the only government to do so.

Mr. Musharraf has considerable leverage. Pakistan has a key role in the fight against terrorism; the country’s border provinces are widely believed to provide sanctuary for many of the Taliban who fled Afghanistan, including some of its leaders.

There also is the fear that homegrown Islamic fundamentalists are a threat to the government. The prospect of another government falling under the influence of radical Islam is worrying, and that fear is magnified by the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

When he announced the emergency measures, Mr. Musharraf justified his actions by saying, “I cannot allow the country to commit suicide.” Plainly, Mr. Musharraf believes that he is all that stands between Pakistan and chaos. He is wrong. He has undermined the independence of other institutions of government and strengthened the army’s role — already strong — in Pakistan’s political life. Indeed, his every step has increased public disaffection with his government and made it more difficult for democracy to take root.

Ironically, the biggest threat to Mr. Musharraf’s rule may be the military. The army has overthrown several military governments. The question now is whether it feels that Mr. Musharraf has weakened the institution by investing its credibility in a failing regime. There is no sign of that yet. That calculation is mistaken.