PAKISTAN'S top leaders resigned Sunday night in an Army-backed effort to break a six-month political deadlock.
Their resignations opened the way for fresh elections expected on Oct. 6, satisfying calls for a new vote by opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Under the new political formula finalized over the weekend in negotiations brokered by Gen. Abdul Waheed, the powerful military chief, both President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed to leave office.
Moeen Qureshi, a vice president of the World Bank, was sworn in as prime minister. Waseem Sajjad, the chairman of the Senate, Pakistan's upper house of parliament, took over the job of president. The interim prime minister is not allowed to participate in the new elections to ensure his impartiality.
Similar setups are being proposed for Pakistan's four provinces, headed by governors and chief ministers. The regions would also be led by officials who would not actively participate in the polls.
The dual resignations came exactly three months after President Khan sacked Prime Minister Sharif on corruption charges April 18. Pakistan's Supreme Court reinstated Sharif May 26, after ruling Khan's dissolution of the parliament unconstitutional. Power struggle erupts
Since Sharif was first dismissed by Khan, Ms. Bhutto has been agitating for new elections, insisting her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has the support of the people. She, too, was sacked as prime minister by President Khan in 1988.
Last Thursday Sharif ordered troops into Islamabad to stop a march by her supporters, heightening political tensions and bringing the country's leadership crisis to a head.
The new political arrangements are part of the country's latest efforts to stabilize its young democracy, which is struggling to mature.
Military rulers have led the country for more than half of the 45 years since independence.
The elections are expected to be a step forward, but may not eliminate the continuing obstacles to a stable civilian government.
Since 1985, when martial law was formally lifted but the country was still under the grip of a former military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, three prime ministers have been sworn into office. Each of them has been dismissed before completing his or her term in office.
Under the Constitution, the president has the power to dissolve civilian governments and call fresh elections.
Those powers were added to the Constitution in a controversial amendment by General Zia in an effort to strengthen the powers of the presidency, which he took on.
It was Sharif's efforts to amend the Constitution and eliminate the amendment that brought him to loggerheads with Khan in January.
His efforts to repeal the amendment failed because he could never gather the support of two-thirds of the members in the 217-seat lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, and the Senate.
There are still many politicians who see the amendment as crucial to the continuity of the civilian system, because it allows the president to dismiss governments before letting circumstances deteriorate to such an extent that a military takeover becomes necessary.
"Take the case of the recent [power struggle]," says one senator who supports the amendment. "If Nawaz Sharif were not dismissed in April, do you think the Army would have just stood there and not stepped in, seeing the president and the prime minister continue to fight?"
But Sharif and his supporters argue that the amendment is a constraint on the development of democracy and the freedom of parliament. Government's agenda
Sharif draws his support from Pakistan's business community, and one outstanding question is how the country's business leaders will react to his resignation. He was elected in 1991 to help reverse the country's economic slide.
Pakistan's economic problems have only intensified during the past year. The country has been faced with one of the largest budget deficits in its recent history, because of large-scale crop losses in flood damage last year. The economic growth rate this year dropped to just over 3 percent, down from an expected 6 percent.
That has only made it more difficult for the government to delay hard hitting revenue generation measures for too long, without creating new economic problems.
Sharif has also been faced with growing dissent from at least two of the four provinces, the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier.
Governments in both provinces have been hostile to the central government in Islamabad; their chief ministers were widely known to be loyal to President Khan in his campaign against Sharif.
With elections due in the next few months, Pakistani politicians are preparing to hit the campaign trails soon. But even if fair and free polls are held, that would only be one step forward on a long, and what appears to be a difficult, road on the path to establish a strong and stable civilian government.