Karachi, Pakistan — The hotel corridor was only about 50 feet long, but on either side of it stood 18 heavily armed guards. At the end sat a distinguished, soft-spoken man, retired Air Force commander in chief Asghar Khan. Mr. Khan now heads the moderate, and banned, political party Tehrik-i-Istiqlal.
Khan's arrest, at Karachi airport's Midway Hotel, was not unlike that of hundreds of politicians and party workers across Pakistan this week.
By midweek all of Pakistan's major political leaders were under guard in preparation for Monday's parliamentary elections. The vote is meant in effect to renew and legitimize the mandate of the country's ruler, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.
The political parties -- except for the Islamic fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami -- have called for a boycott of Monday elections and of voting Thursday for provincial assemblies. So a measure of speculative intrigue has been added to the question of how many of Pakistan's 35 million voters will actually participate.
The election for 237 National Assembly seats is seen by many as a strange contest. Political parties are banned. Political rallies and processions are also forbidden. There are essentially no campaign issues or political themes. Even amplified sound systems are banned, as a danger to ``public peace.''
The candidates, running without political party support, say that they stand to go into debt. And it is all happening under martial law, which will remain in effect indefinitely, or at least until the new parliament endorses the eight previous years of military government.
General Zia, the President and chief martial-law administrator who seized power in a July 1977 coup, appears strikingly self-confident, according to foreign diplomats, despite the uncovering of a suspected coup attempt in January 1984 and low voter turnout in a referendum on Zia's regime in December. Zia interpreted the controversial referendum as a broad endorsement of his rule, even though turnout was probably less than 40 percent, diplomatic officials say. The government claims that 62 percent of Pakistan's electorate went to the polls. The opposition claims it was less than 10 percent.
Since the referendum, the generals in the capital of Islamabad have kept Pakistan's 12 secular and religious parties almost continously off guard. One moment the politicians were disqualified from contesting next week's elections, and then, three days later, they were told that they could participate as independent candidates.
Gulam Mustafa Jatoi, leader of the powerful Pakistan Peoples' Party of executed President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was asked why his party refused to take part, especially since most analysts had projected that the PPP could have captured up to 140 seats.
``This election is no ordinary election, '' Mr. Jatoi responded. ``Just look outside.''
Two truckloads of security men kept their vigil, monitoring all who came and went, from the fashionable whitewashed bungalow. The next morning, the bungalow was declared a ``sub-jail,'' and Jatoi was formally under arrest.
It was a firm response from General Zia to the man to whom, as recently as December, he had offered the post of premier, the second time he had done so since the summer of 1980. Both times Jatoi refused.
``I could give you endless reasons why we are not participating in the elections,'' Jatoi said. ``They are not being held under the [suspended] 1973 Constitution. Zia has said he's going to amend the Constitution, but he hasn't said how. Therefore no one knows what powers will be awarded to the President, to parliament, or to the premier. He's going to institutionalize the role of the Army, but we don't know how. . . .
``Even if we had agreed in principle to participate in partyless elections, under martial law, this would have been an extraordinary concession, and if General Zia is so secure, why was he not prepared to make similar concessions?. . . . Mark my words, another general is about to come along.''
Talk of ``another general'' is plentiful in military regimes, but foreign officials and nonpolitical Pakistani businessmen and financiers see little indication that Zia is about to be replaced.
Yet they too are mystified, as is Jatoi, as to why Zia did not genuinely try to ``civilianize'' his government and strike a bargain with the popular political parties if Zia continues to enjoy the unchallanged support of his generals and the 450,000-man Army. No one, including Pakistani politicians, wants to remain on the outskirts of power for more than eight years.
An equally important question is the extent of Zia's popular support. He has done little to build up a grass-roots following, and continues to count the Army as his mainstay of support. The restrictive nature of his strongly Islamic administration has placated the strict mullahs of the majority Sunni sect, but does not appeal to Pakistan's urban elite or to the thousands of villagers who adhere to Islam's more mystical Barelvi branch.
Thus, his primary foreign backer, the United States, is beginning to see an erosion of its support among Pakistan's traditionally pro-Western elite.
``You know, when he goes, you [the Americans] go,'' said an intellectual in Lahore. ``Your policy is so short-sighted. Just like it was in Iran. It's so neat for Washington to support one person, rather than ideas or principles for which you're supposed to stand.
``You see him as a bulwark against the Russians. How silly you are. Look at our martial-law leaders. They couldn't possibly fight a war.''
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Zia has been looked at increasingly as the leader of a front-line state. This posture has given him a growing legitimacy on the international stage.
Pakistan is now receiving the largest US aid package in Asia -- $3.2 billion for arms and economic assistance over five years. And, despite a letter in September from President Reagan warning that aid could be jeopardized if Pakistan continued to develop a nuclear device, there is no indication that the Pakistani nuclear program has come under restraint. According to top officials, Pakistan is believed to be on the threshold of being capable of exploding a nuclear device.
``The whole 19th-century concept of a buffer state between czarist Russia and the British empire is quite outdated,'' Air Marshal Khan explained. ``And this is a basic US mistake. You cannot look at today's situation in Pakistan in purely military terms.
``And the efforts of the United States and its allies to encourage Pakistan to become a front-line state are not only endangering our security in military terms, but are ruining our economy and creating internal instability, which could tear this country apart.
``With the military being involved, with US backing, in every conceivable aspect of business, administration and civil life, Pakistan's ability to effectively meet any potential foreign military threat is being rapidly eroded. Meanwhile, Pakistan's internal disintegration goes on, through a process begun with the 1971 creation of Bangladesh [formerly East Pakistan].''
On the whole, Zia has been astonishingly fortunate. He has had not only Afghanistan and a regime of relative stability in a volatile part of the world, but also good monsoons and harvests. The country's annual economic growth rate has registered over 6 percent since 1977. This year has seen bumper harvests of cotton and wheat.
Although critical remittances from Pakistanis, mostly in the Persian Gulf, are down by 10 percent this year, they are still providing an unprecedented boost to the foreign exchange coffers of about $3 billion a year.