UNFORTUNATELY, no one but President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq knows for sure what he had in mind in abruptly dismissing Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo and his Cabinet, the entire National Assembly, and four provincial assemblies last weekend. Despite President Zia's promise that a fuller measure of democracy will follow, the immediate effect of his action is to consolidate power more firmly in his own hands. After taking over in a bloodless coup in 1977, Mr. Zia, as Army chief of staff, ruled Pakistan under martial law for eight years before allowing a limited civilian government to take the reins. Under the new Constitution, he may dissolve the government for good reason but must hold new elections within 90 days.
He should be held to that promise, as well as to his new pledge to allow opposition parties to run their own candidates in the election. The parties had no such right in the 1984 elections and boycotted the vote. Zia's new policy, plus the prospect of elections held two years ahead of schedule, prompts the opposition to smile warmly if still warily.
Benazir Bhutto, for instance, leader of the chief opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP), says she will wait until Zia's government spells out the ``rules of the game.'' Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted as prime minister by Zia and executed two years later on politically trumped-up charges.
Mr. Junejo, who heard last weekend's news on his return from a tour of Southeast Asia, said that the development brought Pakistani democracy to a ``thudding halt'' and that he will fight to regain his office. Junejo and Zia have not seen eye to eye on such issues as the role of political parties and military spending. Junejo may have been moving too far into areas Zia wants to control himself.
Zia says a deteriorating state of law and order prompted his action. He has accused the government of corruption and the judicial system of being too lenient with criminals. Also, Zia says, the Islamization of Pakistan under Junejo has moved too slowly. Sectarian strife in Pakistan has increased in recent months. So has the black market for weapons and heroin along the Afghan border. But it can be argued that the degree of civil unrest had hit no point of emergency.
It is possible that Zia sees the moment as ripe for elections that would go his way. Opposition parties, particularly the PPP, are disorganized and unprepared. Zia in recent years has held reasonably well to his announced timetable for democratization. He has strong reasons for wanting to keep power from the opposition. The retroactive legislation he introduced to protect himself and the Army from criminal charges regarding his overthrow of Mr. Bhutto might not be accepted by a new government.
Yet if President Zia declares as the summer months go by that the situation is too dangerous for elections and that he needs more time, many Pakistanis will conclude that their worst suspicions are confirmed. Zia did make, and break, the same early election promise after seizing power in 1977.
Key questions to watch will be whether the elections are held and who can participate. Certainly the United States, which Zia is scheduled to visit the middle of this month, will be watching closely. Ms. Bhutto, the PPP leader, credits steady US pressure on Pakistan to move to a more democratic system with much of the recent progress made.
US-Pakistani relations are at a critical point. Pakistan won a new US aid package a few months ago, including a six-year waiver of a nuclear nonproliferation law. But the flow of aid and Pakistan's nuclear intentions are sure to be reassessed, by Congress if not the White House, as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
President Zia has ample cause on every side to keep Pakistan moving in a more democratic direction.