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Pakistan’s parliament completes a full term

In a first, leadership may freely turn over

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s Parliament completed its term Saturday and the coalition government was dissolved, the first time in the country’s history that a democratically elected government has served its full five years in office.

The way is now open for elections and an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power to another elected administration, even though the country is plagued by political instability.

“This is a milestone in the political history of Pakistan,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “The significance is that there is consensus among all political parties that democracy must continue, no matter how good or bad.”

Pakistan has long been dominated by its giant military, which until Saturday had scuttled every previous Pakistan experiment with democracy. The United States, which has supported military governments in Pakistan in the past, blames the military for supporting radical Islamist groups and keeping relations tense with India and hopes that the establishment of democracy will weaken the army sufficiently to force it to give up its support for extremist groups.

Under Pakistan’s constitution, a neutral interim government will rule for a two-month period to oversee the election, which will take place in early May.

Civilian rule was restored in Pakistan in February 2008, when elections ended Pakistan’s most recent period of military rule, under Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999. During the last election campaign, the Pakistan Peoples Party leader and two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated, leaving her husband, Asif Zardari, to lead the party and the country as president.

The PPP government that held on to power until Saturday was widely criticized for corruption, poor governance, failing to tackle extremism, and a lofty rule that disregarded the problems of most Pakistanis. But it ruled without a majority Parliament and weathered terrorist attacks across the country and insurgency in the northwest. Simply surviving was an accomplishment in itself, many believe.

Parliament itself was criticized for not effectively holding Zardari’s government to account, but it passed twice as many bills as the previous Parliament, a puppet assembly installed by Musharraf. Zardari’s skills proved to be in knitting together coalition partners.

The government’s challenge lay not so much in fighting off the official political opposition, but in dueling with two institutions of state: the judiciary and the military. The executive, the Supreme Court and the army wrestled over the levers of power for the entire five-year term of the government, and the limits of their individual powers are still not settled. Last year, the Supreme Court even fired the prime minister, while the army engaged in repeated public spats with the government.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has won praise for not seeking to topple the PPP government, and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has been lauded, especially by the United States and other Western powers, for staying out of politics more than his predecessor had.