IT WAS CHARACTERISTIC of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that his death should be a matter of dispute, for he was never an accommodating man. He rose in Pakistani public life by strokes of boldness and became president in 1971 just as Pakistan had been defeated and dismembered. His achievement was to salvage his people's self-respect and set Pakistan back on the path toward democracy and development. But the autocratic personal style at the heart of his professed populism created a backlash, and in 1977 he was ousted by a coup.

He was then tried for conspiring to murder a rival. His constituents and many foreigners claimed he was a victim of political persecution. The new government responded that he had been found guilty of the crime charged and that his claims of persecution concealed an intent to gain freedom and then revenge. The government could have either executed him in the name of the law and thereby aroused his constituency, or let him off and thereby conceded its own illegitimacy and invited his restoration. It hanged him Wednesday before dawn.

Pakistan now confronts a true crisis of legitimate government. The last elected leader has been killed by a military vovernment headed by a general who, not content to rule under the old constitution's emergency powers, had himself appointed president with no constitutional authority at all. Gen. Mohammed Zia, aware of his vulnerability, has announced elections for Nov. 21. Ideally, that would provide a contest between his own Islamic traditionalism and the leftward-tending modernism likely to form around the symbol of a martyred Bhutto. But Gen. Zia is worried about ethnic and class fragmentation as well as about his own power, and he indicates he will restrict the issues and perhaps the persons allowed in the campaign. The prognosis is grim.

The prospect of further turbulence in the "crescent of crisis" along the Soviet Union's southern frontier is troubling, but the Carter administration, inclined anyway toward India on account of that country's reembrace of democracy and its greater geopolitical heft, has shown little interest in military-ruled Pakistan. The Pakistanis, feeling bruised, have begun to turn to Moscow for political insurance and to Paris for arms. The falling away of two longtime allies is an important event. Is Jimmy Carter being too pure in keeping Pakistan at a distance? It looks that way. Pakistan is not, after all, the shah's Iran: a conspicuously misrun personal fiefdom. The message Mr. Carter is sending is not so much that the United States favors democracies as that it steps back from old friends.