South Asia is a part of the globe only infrequently in the headlines but often in the minds of those concerned about world peace. The Indian subcontinent holds a huge diversity of peoples organized into nation-states that constantly struggle against fragmentation. Its two behemoths, India and Pakistan, join nuclear-weapons capability to longstanding, often violent, border tensions.
The region also hosts some of the world's more turgid domestic politics, as recent events in Pakistan show. For the third time in less than a decade, the country's elected prime minister has been removed from office by its appointed president. This procedure, anomalous in a democracy, seems a throwback to the days of British colonial rule, when the viceroy had superordinate power over other officials.
The presidential power to dissolve governments has been used twice against Benazir Bhutto, on Nov. 5 and in 1990, both times on grounds of corruption and abuse of power. In 1993, it was invoked against then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Ms. Bhutto's chief political rival. Bhutto has vowed to defend herself both before the country's supreme court and in the court of public opinion. The high court, however, on Nov. 19 abruptly dismissed Bhutto's challenge to the president's action. A new election is set for early February, and the ousted prime minister is determined to take part, though she faces a determined effort to have her disqualified from running.
It is by no means clear that Bhutto - who combines charisma, a Western education, and a readiness to engage in Pakistan's particularly vicious brand of political infighting - can surmount her troubles this time around. While she doubtless retains some public support, many Pakistanis welcomed her dismissal. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is widely thought to be corrupt, and her appointment of him as investments minister met with public scorn.
Like neighbor and rival India, Pakistan faces divisive pressures. One fault line divides Pakistanis who lived in the country before independence from those who flooded into Muslim Pakistan as British rule ended, fearing Hindu domination in India. Tensions also spring from nationalist stirrings in the Punjab, Sind, and other regions.
Too often, the conflict with India is seized by Pakistanis as a unifying theme. This parallels the tactics of Hindu nationalists across the border and heightens the region's sectarian frictions. It also keeps the threat of war - and the nuclear question mark - hovering over one of the world's most populous regions.
What Pakistan needs is a stable, civilian-run government, based on respect for democratic processes and a commitment to root out corruption. If all parties to the current political churning are given an opportunity to present their cases to the courts and to the public, the country will take a step toward meeting that need.