THE HEADLINE said that hundreds of Pakistanis had been arrested on the eve of national elections, and next to it was a picture of the president and military-law administrator, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, smiling. The juxtaposition was no doubt accidental, but it says something suggestive about President Zia's Pakistan.

In his evident view, things go fairly well. Economic gains have been steady, remittances hold firm, crops are good: the mass of people at the bottom are entitled to have some sense that conditions have improved under the martial law regime that then-Gen. Zia, proclaimed in 1977. Its support of the Afghan resistance exposes Pakistan to certain risks and costs, but compensation has come in closer ties with other Islamic countries and with the United States. The political opposition, meanwhile, is banned and, partly as a result, dispirited. The single legal "party," the military, salutes the commander-in-chief.

For all that President Zia is a worldly man, he does not show much embarrassment over a political order that looks suspiciously like indefinite arbitrary one-man rule. Last December he engineered a no-competition referendum meant to give him a personal mandate, and now he is following up by staging empty elections to a new national assembly -- no parties are competing and the individuals permitted to campaign cannot use microphones. It was to ensure that opposition politicians did not use election day to make a show against the elections that he decided to lock them up for a while.

After the elections he apparently intends to rewrite the now-suspended constitution in order to set the president over the prime minister and an appointed "national security council" over the elected national assembly. In this way will be restored a tame form of civilian government that can be easily sidetracked in an "emergency."

The democratic train never got up much speed in independent Pakistan. The nation's security has never been ensured -- not even its borders -- and this has kept the military either in command of the political arena or loitering on the edges of it. President Zia's evident contempt for the civilian political side of Pakistan, however, is marked and disturbing. The country is too mature and too naturally political a place to be treated indefinitely as a subordinate regiment. The United States hesitates to criticize, but President Zia should be criticized. He is the only one smiling.