THE DEATH SENTENCE given former Pakistani prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, convicted for ordering a rival's assassination, poses a stark choice between the demands of law and the demands of politics. His trial was public and lengthy and held in conformance with the law of the land; Mr. Bhutto can yet appeal and ask the government for clemency. But even though the principles of accountability and legality are thus being respected, a certain basic political "law" is not. Mr. Bhutto still claims substantial numbers of followers, and many of them see his sentence, as they saw his arrest and trial, aaaas an expression of vengeance. The disturbances reported yesterday in several Pakistani cities offer a taste of the form their continued alienation could take. The military leadership is not so firmly in command as to tempt that sort of trouble without a second thought.

We hope the government of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq does give that second thought. We do so not with the thought that the crime of which Mr. Bhutto was convicted is not serious or that he is innocent or that his trial was frauduleelnt. What troubles us is that it is asking a great deal of Mr. Bhutto's still substantial constituency to expecect them to accept that the process by which justice has been meted out to Mr. Bhutto is untinged by politics..s For all of his real and imagined misdeeds and flaws of character and policy, Mr. Bhutto did have political legitimacy: He was the people's choice. The generals do not have that legitimacy, and they are therefore at a great disadvantage in convincing Mr. Bhutto's supporters that what is happening to him now is fair.

In the very different circumstances surrounding President Ford's pardon of President Nixon, essentially political grounds were found for sparing the disgraced president the full rigors of the judicial process. The argument was that the country had seen sufficient upheaval during the period leading up to Mr. Nixon's resignation and that the public intereerst in tranquility and a return to normalcy would be better served by pardon than by a series of trials. That is not to say that the pardon was universally approved or that the Pakistanis should or can follow literally that particular American example. It is to say that Americans are in a good position to appreciate the moral and legal and political complexities of the passage the Pakistani government is entering now.