In the long run, civilian rule is what Pakistan needs. But it does not necessarily need this civilian government.
A false choice in Pakistan's crisis of confidence
Tomorrow the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will ask Pakistan's parliament for a vote of confidence. Lawmakers will decide if they want to support an unpopular and ineffective government to send a signal of support for electoral democracy against the backdrop of a possible military coup.
Pakistan's generals have seized power in a coup four times in the last 54 years. Even when the military has been in the background, it has wielded inordinate control over the levers of power. No civilian government has ever served a full five-year term.
The army last yielded power in 2008 when Gen Pervez Musharraf fled the country. During his nine years as head of state, Gen Musharraf oversaw his country as it slid farther into instability, extremism and violence, the very problems that he ostensibly had taken power to resolve. Military rule has always been a short-term solution that retards the country's political development.
To be sure, even the most zealous advocates of democracy will concede that Pakistan's electoral politics have their problems: corruption has been persistently pervasive and the spirit of compromise, so essential to good governance in any form, is glimpsed only rarely.
The current convoluted crisis involves an alleged government bid for US backing against a coup, an alleged military quest for foreign support for a possible coup, a Supreme Court demand that Mr Gilani cooperate with a Swiss corruption inquiry about President Asif Ali Zardari, the government's sacking of an army-friendly defence minister, and more.
A case could be made, actually, that Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the armed forces, has shown laudable forbearance in refraining from sweeping all this away.
On the other hand, ruling Pakistan is not a very alluring duty: while elites fret over military-civilian relations, too many of the 187 million Pakistanis remain mired in real crises of poverty, corruption, squalor and the extremism that flourishes in those conditions. The government would face little risk of a coup if it had accomplished more.
Civilian rule is in the long run what Pakistan needs. But it does not necessarily need this civilian government.
As parliamentarians vote tomorrow on the fate of this government, it will not be a choice between democracy and dictatorship, as Mr Gilani has framed it. The fall of this government would not be an endorsement of a coup. Pakistanis have already made that choice, and it is the responsibility of the military to abide by it.