VOTERS IN Pakistan on Monday delivered an overwhelming message of rejection to Pervez Musharraf, the ex-general who the Bush administration has been insisting is "indispensable" to U.S. policy. By giving a large majority in parliament to moderate parties that strenuously opposed Mr. Musharraf during more than eight years of autocratic rule, Pakistanis rendered his new presidential mandate illegitimate. They reduced the governing party to a rump and stripped several of its top leaders of their parliamentary seats. Mr. Musharraf's only honorable response to the election results would be to resign. The Bush administration, meanwhile, needs to quickly adjust to the Pakistani political reality that it has been stubbornly resisting.
To their credit, Mr. Musharraf and his followers did not carry out the massive rigging of the elections that would have been necessary to prevent their defeat -- and that would have invited a popular uprising. Violence during the elections was relatively low, though so was turnout. The results were an affirmation that a mostly secular, pro-democracy center is the strongest force in Pakistani politics, despite the mounting aggressiveness of Islamic extremist groups. Islamic parties fared poorly in the voting even in the Western provinces bordering Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are based.
The big winners were the Pakistan People's Party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the Muslim League of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Mr. Musharraf ousted in a 1999 military coup. Though results were still being tallied yesterday, the two parties should be able to reverse Mr. Musharraf's recent blows against the judiciary and the press if they cooperate. At a minimum, the new government should nullify Mr. Musharraf's dismissal and detention of dozens of judges last fall and his restrictions on reporting by the media. It should seek constitutional reform to ensure that the election places Pakistan firmly on a path to full democracy.
Both the leading parties have checkered records in wielding power in the past, so their victory should not be cause for triumphalism. The People's Party, which may have the first claim to forming a new government, should stick to its pledge to work closely with the Pakistani army and the United States to fight al-Qaeda. The Bush administration helped pave the way for its victory by urging Mr. Musharraf to accept the return of Ms. Bhutto from exile; it also pressured the president to allow a fair election. Now the administration needs to reconcile those actions with their result, which has been the delegitimization of Mr. Musharraf's claim to the presidency. The administration should urge its not-so-indispensable ally to step down, and it should launch a new policy aimed at bolstering Pakistan's reemerging democratic center.