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Miss Bhutto's case

EVENTS in Pakistan over this last week underscore the need for that government to respond to widespread citizen yearning for steady progress toward genuine democracy. Islamabad clearly overreacted to Independence Day demonstrations by the jailing of Benazir Bhutto and hundreds of other political opponents and by the use of gunfire that left at least six dead.

Zia ul-Haq, President and Army chief of staff, who seized power in a 1977 coup from Miss Bhutto's father, has shown he understands the importance of keeping up at least the appearance of democracy.

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Though there is every sign that the military is still in charge, President Zia last year allowed civilian National Assembly ``elections,'' while barring organized political parties from taking part, and lifted longtime martial law. Press censorship was stopped and political parties were once again allowed to operate openly. It was into that climate the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Miss Bhutto chose to return from self-imposed exile in Britain last spring. She heads the chief opposition party and has pitched her campaign on the need to shift Pakistan from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Bhutto and the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, a coalition of 11 opposition parties, have been pressing for a fall parliamentary election. Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, the man in charge last week while President Zia was conveniently far from the scene in Saudi Arabia, says there will be no election until 1990. Bhutto and her allies may be trying to push Islamabad into doing too much too fast. But the object of their pressure -- the continued opening of military rule to a broader civilian voice -- is sound.

Pakistan is a vital ally in Washington's efforts to help Afghan guerrillas. Islamabad, which has taken in some 3 million Afghan refugees, has been given more than $3 billion in economic and military aid by the US in the last five years. Congress is weighing a $4 billion renewal.

But the United States must not rely so heavily on the status quo and its strategic ties that it fails to distance itself sufficiently from potentially vulnerable regimes. President Reagan just last month welcomed Mr. Junejo to Washington as a leader of a ``constitutional government'' and representative of ``one of our closest partners.''

In response to the mayhem of recent days, Washington has correctly regretted the government's ``numerous'' arrests and its ``limitations on freedom of movement.'' The US should also join the ranks of those pressing for elections before 1990.

Pakistan, which has a large, well-educated middle class, was exposed to British tradition for many years, just as was India. It is just as ready for democracy.

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