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Pakistan's Perils

It's far from clear whether Pakistan's recently completed elections are a turning point for that turbulent and strategically important nation. But they certainly marked a turning point for Benazir Bhutto.

The charismatic Ms. Bhutto's second term as prime minister ended last November as her first did - with the dissolution of her government by the country's president. The president, Farooq Leghari, was urged by some to set up a long-term caretaker government himself, but he decided, instead, to put the question to the people.

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On Feb. 3, Pakistan's voters gave Bhutto's chief political rival, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, a resounding victory. Mr. Sharif has been in the prime minister's chair before, in the early '90s. He, too, was removed by the president on charges of misrule and corruption.

The pressing question now: Can Sharif do anything to arrest Pakistan's political and economic slide? The country's economy is floundering, its politics are permeated by corruption, and its social fabric is riven by criminal violence, often related to drug trafficking in the region.

Yet Pakistan has a reservoir of educated, business-savvy people. Mr. Sharif has quickly struck some positive notes, promising stability so that investment and business growth can revive. Bhutto, to her credit, has pledged to work with him and not formally challenge the elections. Sharif also wants to resume talks with India and resolve explosive border tensions. Both countries are believed to have nuclear-weapons capabilities.

Sharif will have to work within Pakistan's bizarre political structure. President Leghari, an appointee of parliament, still has dismissal powers. And the country's armed forces retain a strong grip on civilian governments. Sharif, if he can, would do well to dissolve the recently formed Council for Defense and National Security, with heavy military representation.

Pakistan's democracy needs an infusion of honest and selfless leadership, along with some structural changes. Bhutto, for all her populist flair, didn't seem able to provide these. We hope Sharif, his second time around, can do better.

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