Almost no one wants to say it out loud. But between the threats from extremists, an unraveling economy, battling civilian leaders and tensions with its nuclear rival India, Pakistan is edging ever closer to the abyss.In a report this week, The Atlantic Council warned that Pakistan’s stability is imperiled and that the time to change course is fast running out. That would be quite enough for any government to deal with. Then on Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court added new fuel upholding a ruling barring opposition leader Nawaz Sharif — a former prime minister — and his brother from holding elected office. That touched off protests across Punjab Province, the Sharifs’ power base and Pakistan’s richest and politically most important province.The Sharifs charge that the Supreme Court is a tool of President Asif Ali Zardari. They are backing anti-government lawyers who have long campaigned for the reinstatement of the country’s former top judge who was dismissed by former Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2007.We don’t know if Mr. Zardari orchestrated this ruling, as Nawaz Sharif and many others have charged. (The government actually argued Mr. Sharif’s side in the case, which stems from an earlier politically motivated criminal conviction.) We do know the danger of letting this situation get out of control.
When Mr. Zardari became president, he pledged to unite the country. He has not. Like Mr. Zardari, Mr. Sharif is a flawed leader and no doubt is manipulating the combustible court ruling for personal political gain.For Pakistan’s democracy to survive, a robust opposition must be allowed to flourish and participate peacefully in the country’s political life. That includes finding a way for Mr. Sharif to run for office.It also means Pakistan must get serious about tackling its problems, including the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mr. Zardari, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by extremists, seems to understand.Unfortunately, the powerful chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, still seems far more focused on the potential threat of India than the clear and present danger of the extremists. He is said to have supported the recent deal in which the government effectively ceded the Swat Valley — in the border region but just 100 miles from Islamabad — to militants in a misguided bid for a false peace.Pakistanis need to understand that this is their fight, not just America’s. We hope top American officials delivered that message loudly and clearly when General Kayani visited Washington this week.There was a time when Messrs. Zardari and Sharif pledged to work together for the good of Pakistan. Their country is in mortal danger. And they need to find a way to work together to save it.