The announcement was expected, but it came with an unanticipated bonus. In a nationally televised session of Parliament, President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, standing before a portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, proclaimed an end last week to 8½ years of martial law. As legislators banged their desks in approval, Zia concluded his speech with the rallying cry "Long live the era of democracy!" Opposition politicians, expecting the move, had already labeled Zia's latest steps toward democracy a "fraud." Perhaps in anticipation of so skeptical a response, the wily soldier-politician sprang a surprise: he ended a 20-year state of emergency that had severely restricted personal freedoms. That liberalization carried one condition. "If anyone ever dares to derail the train of democracy for personal gain," Zia told his countrymen, "he shall have to face terrible consequences."
Instead of trumpeting the return of such freedoms, Zia spoke in cautionary terms. "No radical change of the system should be anticipated," he told Parliament. The message: Zia fully intends to retain control over Pakistan's emerging democracy. Perhaps the best demonstration of that intention is a new Political Parties Act, which requires political organizations, banned by Zia in 1979, to be licensed by a government-controlled commission. Even so, some of the liberalization moves are significant. Civil courts have replaced martial law tribunals, and civilians have been named to take over from military governors in three of the country's four provinces.
The end of the state of emergency should mean that freedom of speech and assembly are restored. But Zia will probably extend those rights selectively, using the Political Parties Act to weed out undesirable opposition groups. In what may have been a sobering harbinger of the future, police arrested about 200 people two weeks ago when the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, a coalition of eleven banned parties calling for Zia's immediate resignation, tried to stage a demonstration in Lahore.
The response among opposition politicians to Zia's initiative was mixed. Hamida Khuhro, a Sindhi nationalist leader, said the end of martial law "was a welcome first step." Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the executed former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and self-exiled leader of the Pakistan People's Party, the largest opposition party, denounced the move. "An act of political camouflage," she called it in a statement from her home in southern France. But other M.R.D. leaders, apparently caught off guard by the lifting of the state of emergency, had no public reaction to Zia's speech.
The suspension of martial law marked the latest step in a drawn-out effort to restore democracy in Pakistan. In December 1984, Zia used the favorable results of a vaguely worded referendum as grounds to declare himself President for a five-year term. Last February he called elections for the suspended Parliament. All candidates were required to run as independents, but according to most observers, the balloting was fair.