IT is tempting to see the events unfolding in Pakistan as a replay of the recent drama in the Philippines, with the prospect of freedom and democratization replacing repression and authoritarianism. And also with Benazir Bhutto, in the triumphant early stages of her return from exile, playing the role of Corazon Aquino. But the similarities are mostly on the surface. Pakistan is not the Philippines, and Miss Bhutto is not Mrs. Aquino.
Unlike the Philippines, Pakistan has little experience with Western-style democracy, and few of the institutions on which democracy is based. In Pakistan the well-educated middle class, a source of stability, is substantially smaller than in the Philippines.
The rule of Pakistan's President Zia has been far from perfect in its restrictions on human rights and personal liberties, but not on the scale of deposed Philippine President Marcos. Unlike Mr. Marcos, Zia has not misused his position to live lavishly.
Though many of the views of both Bhutto and Aquino remain unclear, they are based on different traditions. Aquino's are rooted in democratic opposition. Bhutto's stem from the often-authoritarian style of her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom Zia executed seven years ago.
Bhutto is believed strongly pro-American. But the political party she leads -- her nation's largest -- contains extremist anti-American elements. If reforms are not forthcoming from Zia, she will be pressed by this political left to take a more violent approach to gaining power. This could lead to repression and push the prospect of democracy further into the future.
Zia may or may not be willing to give up his job as President, while retaining his role as military commander in chief: Expert opinions vary. But if major political change is to be precipitated by Bhutto's return, it will probably have to come shortly. She needs to build the support she has received thus far into such a strong nationwide movement that, as in the Philippines, it cannot be ignored. Otherwise the support likely will soon fade.
Washington would be prudent to prepare for the prospect that Zia may be replaced as Pakistan's head of government, if not by Bhutto, then someone else. The time to work to build ties to likely leadership candidates, starting with Bhutto, is now.
Pakistan is important to the United States and the rest of the West. It provides the key staging area for Afghan guerrillas, through which munitions are funneled and where Afghan refugees live. As a nation that borders the Soviet Union, it is useful in the international game of geopolitics.
At present no nationwide election is scheduled until 1990. The West should urge Zia to speed up this balloting, now set only for parliament, and to hold presidential elections -- in both cases early next year if possible. Change by ballot box is far preferable to the prospect of disorder, or repression.
Zia should also be urged to resist any pressure from the military to restore martial law.
Thus far Zia has confidently shown more restraint than was expected in permitting Bhutto to rally support. In their reponse to her, Pakistanis are showing their yearning for greater political and personal freedoms; a continued move in these directions should be encouraged.