ON Aug. 17, 1988, Pakistan was plunged into a serious political crisis when President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq died in a mysterious plane crash along with the United States ambassador and several other people. Five years later, Pakistan finds itself still trying to clear up the mess created by the late general's manipulation of the democratic experiment.
Elections scheduled for October are being billed as a trial of strength between forces of parliamentary democracy and advocates of a broad-based compromise that seeks to reconcile the nation's socioeconomic and political needs with its basic Islamic principles.
The pro-democracy notion is being advanced by a coalition of parties headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and partially by Nawaz Sharif, also an ex-premier, who leads the country's other major political grouping, the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA). The concept of compromise is put across by hardliners within the IDA, a powerful section of the armed forces, and by those who still cling to General Zia's legacy.
If the Pakistani situation looks chaotic, it is the result of the notorious Eighth Amendment, which Zia pushed through. The measure empowers the head of state to name and dismiss the premier at his pleasure, dissolve the federal and provincial assemblies, order elections, and make key appointments.
Zia put the law on the book with the concurrence of most political leaders in mid-1980s, when demands for lifting martial law gained momentum. It was the lesser evil: to get rid of martial law and pay a price to a shrewd military ruler for allowing civilians to share power and hold elections, even if restricted ones. Inherent in the arrangement was the prospect that the process would spawn a civilian government that would repeal the Eighth Amendment.
But that hasn't happened, and the country now is poised for the third general election in five years. New elections could have been avoided if political leaders had cooperated to get rid of the Eighth Amendment and promote a consensus on charting Pakistan's political direction. But the vote became inevitable when political paralysis, brought on by a feud between then-President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Mr. Sharif, showed no signs of ending.
The crisis came to a head earlier this year when a row erupted between the two leaders on picking a successor to the Army chief of staff, who had died suddenly.
The gulf between them widened when Sharif suggested that he would press for the annulment of the Eighth Amendment. He also was reluctant to endorse Mr. Khan for a second term in the presidential election later this year. This smacked of rebellion; Khan brought Sharif in as premier after invoking the amendment to sack Ms. Bhutto's popularly elected government in August 1990 on charges of corruption and misrule.
Khan dismissed Sharif's administration on April 18 on similar charges.
Curiously, the president could move against Sharif only with support of Ms. Bhutto, who helped implement the same constitutional provision she had denounced. Bhutto's main objective was to force parliamentary elections.
Sharif appealed his sacking, and on May 26, Pakistan's Supreme Court threw out the presidential proclamation as illegal and reinstated the prime minister, his government, and the federal National Assembly.
The ensuing political disarray gave the military - which has ruled the country for 25 of its 46 years - an opportunity to intervene. Gen. Abdul Waheed, the Army chief of staff, brokered a compromise between the president and the premier under which the two relinquished office by mutual consent on July 18 to pave the way for elections for the National Assembly on Oct. 6 and for the four provincial legislatures on Oct. 9.
For the vote to help bring democracy and political stability to the country, it must produce a robust, credible mandate. All indications, however, point to a hung parliament.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party dominates the People's Democratic Alliance (PDA) that she is leading into the fray. But the PDA has been weakened by the People's Party credibility gap. Not only did Bhutto fail to deliver on her commitment to rescind the Eighth Amendment, but her government also was marred by serious accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power.
Sharif's IDA was deemed the most cohesive political group until it split after his battles with Khan. Now the ex-prime minister controls his Muslim League faction alone. But he remains very popular in his native Punjab, the country's most powerful province. He also may repeat his 1990 victory in Sind, Bhutto's home province, by again enlisting the support of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, a strong regional ethnic group.
As for the military, although the Army chief's help in averting a dangerous political showdown was laudable, it remained power politics. Former Army chief Gen. Aslam Beg has already talked of the need to set up, under the constitution, a supreme council, which would include military representatives, to resolve similar crises in the future. Such a move would institutionalize the Army's role in political decisionmaking.
The task before Pakistanis is clear: to pronounce unambiguously in favor of democratic rule unbridled in any way. If they fail and the politicians continue to pull each other down to further their personal ambitions, the generals may not be inclined to retrieve the situation passively next time around.