IN A DIFFERENT context, the six-week delay in Pakistan's parliamentary elections announced yesterday could have been helpful. Opposition leaders have been calling on President Pervez Musharraf to respond to last week's assassination of Benazir Bhutto with a genuine effort to restore democracy. That would mean announcing his own willingness to step down; forming an interim government; restoring media freedoms and judicial independence that remain compromised after a period of de facto martial law last fall; and taking steps to ensure that the elections will be free and fair. But Mr. Musharraf has rejected such actions, and so the announcement by an electoral commission composed of his loyalists that voting would be postponed from next Tuesday to Feb. 18 was widely understood as yet another maneuver by the president to shore up his own faltering political position.
With the unfortunate backing of the Bush administration, Mr. Musharraf has repeatedly acted in recent months to save himself at the expense of Pakistan's best interests. He suspended the constitution and imprisoned judges in order to push through an illegal extension of his own mandate as president. Rather than confront the extremist Islamist forces that are trying to upend Pakistan's secular order, he has waged war against journalists, judges, moderate political parties and civil society groups that should be his allies against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Under pressure from the Bush administration, Mr. Musharraf allowed Ms. Bhutto to return home and begin an election campaign. But in the days before her murder, Ms. Bhutto said that she was convinced that the government intended to rig the elections so that the unpopular party of Mr. Musharraf would remain in office.
So far Mr. Musharraf's maneuvering has only compounded his troubles. His government's apparent dissembling about the manner of Ms. Bhutto's death -- it has gagged her doctors, tried to dismiss reports that she was shot and prematurely pinned blame on an Islamic militant -- has only increased the suspicion of Pakistanis that the authorities may have had something to do with the assassination. The election postponement, evidently intended to diminish a potential sympathy vote for Ms. Bhutto's party, increases the risk that Pakistanis will take their discontent to the streets. Fortunately, Ms. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, urged her supporters yesterday to "be peaceful and express their anger through their ballots."
Mr. Musharraf also struck a conciliatory note in a television address, saying that he shared Ms. Bhutto's goal of democracy and announcing that he had invited British investigators to join in the probe of her death. But, if he will not resign, he needs to do much more if the February election is to stabilize Pakistan. The electoral commission should be reshaped and opposition parties given a greater role in assembling the electoral rolls and conducting the vote. Remaining controls on the media must be lifted and imprisoned lawyers and judges freed. Mr. Musharraf remains in power in large part because the Bush administration has continued to back him long after the great majority of Pakistanis turned against him. President Bush must now make it absolutely clear that continued support depends entirely on free, fair and credible parliamentary elections.