The strength of ongoing public demonstrations against the martial law regime of President Zia ul-Haq has surprised both the government and diplomats in Pakistan's capital.
The Movement for Restoration of Democracy, a coalition of nine political parties, has been staging a nationwide civil disobedience campaign against President Zia's martial law regime since Aug. 14.
Rallies have been held in all of Pakistan's major cities during the past week with additional rallies planned for this week. In many instances, especially in the southern Sind province, the rallies and protests have broken into violent confrontations with police and attacks on government offices and buildings. There have been over a dozen killings and hundreds of arrests.
The government has been taking strong measures against the political protestors. Troops have been deployed in Sind as well as in upcountry towns where the protests have been violent. A number of towns in Sind have prohibited assemblies of more than four people in order to curb violence.
The campaign by the antigovernment coalition was a planned response to President Zia's announcement Aug. 12 that martial law would continue for at least another 18 months, by which time local, provincial, and national elections would be held.
But despite the promise to hold elections, it has become increasingly apparent that Zia's democracy will not be a democracy in any Western sense.
There is almost no likelihood that he will permit the leading opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party, to enter the race. Indeed, it appears that all of the three-tiered elections will be on a nonparty basis.
The general himself has said that both local and provincial elections will be nonpartisan. His decision on party participation in the all-important national race - for an assembly and a senate - will not be announced until two months before the elections are held. And this two-month period, which some say will probably be declared much earlier than his announced deadline of March 1985, will be the duration of the election campaign.
''The crucial question,'' said one Western official, ''is not whether elections will be held, but how they'll be conducted. Who will qualify? He's (Zia) twice before announced elections, then reneged.''
''But this time he's announced a timetable,'' the official continued. ''The one surprise in his announcement was how specific it was. . . . He's now committed himself to elections and placed his credibility on the line.''
In so doing, General Zia has gambled - probably more heavily than at any other time since he seized power over six years ago, when he suspended the constitution and political parties and clamped the country under martial law.
He knows that he has to attract enough seasoned politicians into the electoral race, so that it is not completely shorn of any legitimacy. Yet he also knows that it will be the same elected bodies that will choose the considerably strengthened Pakistani president, a post, fashioned on the French model, which seems tailor-made for him.
Under the new political arrangements, the president will be empowered to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and can dissolve the National Assembly. The prime minister will be selected by the majority party in the National Assembly. Yet, in the absence of any political parties, it is not yet clear how the prime minister will be chosen.
The president will also be able to return to the chamber any legislation which he does not like, though General Zia's aides claim this does not amount to a veto. What it does amount to, however, they have not explained. Martial law, according to those familiar with Zia's thinking, will remain in force, for one to three months after the national elections are held.
Will Pakistan's politicians be attracted by a democracy so tightly controlled? In the view of Western officials, despite the ongoing protests in Sind, for some politicians, the temptation is clearly there.
''He's telling them the bandwagon is rolling, with or without them, it's going to move,'' said one diplomatic official. ''They've been banned from any activity for the past six years. . . . A politician who doesn't control any patronage, who doesn't get elected, really isn't a politician at all.
''A key question is can the opposition keep this agitation (in Sind province) going? Escalate it? Force him to compromise? And, can they come up with an alternative program? At the moment, they're clamoring only for elections, for elections sake.''
Within the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy there are certainly fissures and strains. The alliance of political parties hostile to the Zia regime is a heterogeneous grouping of religious and regional parties, rightists and leftists, mullahs and wealthy landlords. Nearly all of its leadership is now arrested, been placed under house detention, or gone underground.
So, it is extremely difficult to determine what these politicians feel should be done about the elections.
The leadership of the Pakistan People's Party, the leading opposition party, first decided to participate in next month's local elections on nonparty lines; they then reversed their decision. Yet, some party members have already registered for the contests.
The screening process for candidates in local elections is now under way. The criteria for qualification and rejection - officially, former party officeholders are barred - could be a bellwether for what Zia intends for the nation at large. As is his customary manner, the President is keeping his options open, taking things step by step.
In the ensuing welter of unanswered questions, three things appear clear.
Pakistan's democracy will be a democracy of Zia loyalists, or at least of those who do not speak out against his dominant role in political life. The Bhutto family and the left wing of the Socialist Party will be kept out of the political arena, seemingly at any cost.
And General Zia, who himself has become a politician in the past six years, has decided that he will not form his own party. There is no need to throw his hat into the political arena, as long as he can continue in his presidential role.
Yet, perhaps the most surprising substance in all he has said was that, although his new political framework would be Islamic, it would not be a theocracy. His handpicked and highly controversial Council on Islamic Ideology will be given no constitutional role, even though it recommended, at times quite passionately, that it was deserving of such a role.
Perhaps this decision was influenced by the riots earlier this year when Sunni and Shiite Muslims faced off in a violent confrontation over ownership of a mosque in Karachi. Zia himself is a devout Muslim, and the violence may have damaged his hopes for sectarian harmony. Or perhaps his decision was influenced by the outcry from lawyers and feminists, and other professional groups over the growing influence of Islam in public life.
The decision to back off from an Islamic theocracy, too, may have been due to a perception that this Muslim nation's fundamentalists were getting decidedly out of hand. The old structured leadership, certainly not liberal in any sense, was being eclipsed by even more militant mullahs and imams. Their suggestions on the role of the clergy, women, the Shiites, and other minorities are due to be published this week. Had these ''reforms'' been taken into serious account, they could, in the view of some observers, have returned Pakistani society to a period preceding the Koran.
Thus, it would appear that Zia's program of Islamization will undergo no more radical change. His economic measures - the collection of Islamic taxation the ''usur'' and ''zakat,'' and his new banking policies, where interest is no longer called interest - will remain in effect.
Under Zia's blueprint for a new order, Islamic social mores are bound to be more rigidly observed and Islamic ''qazi'' courts will be established in two cities, on an experimental basis, he emphasized. But the mandate of the courts will be restricted to weeding out corruption, which is reportedly rampant, and making justice available in the thousands of villages where it must now be paid for with a bribe.
''He knows,'' said one Western diplomat, ''that one of the reasons he's not as popular as he could be is the deep resentment - and this goes right across social lines - over the corruption of justice, and the corruption of the police. . . . At the village level, the common man resents the fact that he has to bribe the police to get justice, and if he (Zia) rids the country of this, it will make him a good deal more popular at the village level, and that's where his constituency is.''