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Zia tries out democracy

THE decision by Pakistan's President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq to end martial rule is a positive development. Pakistan should be encouraged in this direction: to move away from military rule, and to develop gradually the institutions -- such as political parties -- that underlie civilian government. These are the steps that the West properly has been pressing for; it can be expected to seek continued progress in both areas. Yet none should overestimate the degree to which President Zia is likely to relax his grip on government in the short run. Granted, President Zia has announced the appointment of civilian governors for the nation's provinces. Still, through various mechanisms he and the military are expected to remain in effective control of decisionmaking.

It is highly unusual in the third world for a government leader to hand over power voluntarily, and orderly successions have been particularly rare in Pakistan. Further, Pakistan has a dearth of democratic institutions that could form a foundation for civilian rule with a significant amount of democracy.

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Given this history, it is unrealistic to expect Pakistan -- or any third-world country with similar background -- to institute in the foreseeable future a democracy with the pluralism of that in Great Britain or the United States. What the West should reasonably expect of Pakistan is the establishment of a fairly stable government, accepted by a majority of its citizens; meanwhile, democratic institutions should first be established and then strengthened. The government ought also to improve the human r ights treatment meted out to Pakistanis.

Zia has a good government role model next door: India. It has evolved a political system that, although imperfect, nonetheless offers a highly unusual example, for the third world, of orderly succession of leaders.

Zia has found the current Indian leader, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, particularly receptive to the Pakistani's desire for some time to improve relations between the two often-suspicious neighbors. Since Gandhi's accession to leadership a year ago the two men have held six talks; the last, early in December, yielded several important steps toward a more relaxed coexistence, including a promise by each not to attack the other's nuclear facilities.

As the West supports the new relaxation by Zia, it should be careful to continue the expected pressure on him to keep moving, step by deliberate step, toward a more liberalized government. The announced lifting of martial law is constructive. It is now vital that President Zia and the Pakistani military follow through on their promises.

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