Like a hero of classical tragedy, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf seems increasingly trapped. No matter how well-intentioned, his choices lead relentlessly to an unhappy ending. By calling a referendum on Tuesday, Musharraf seeks a political and constitutional legitimacy that his opponents will never grant him. The only way forward is for the army and political parties to reform and establish the primacy of the rule of law. As patron and critic of this drama, the U.S. also has a major stake in this outcome.

The plot of the recurring Pakistani drama is simple. Corrupt civilian governments create economic and social crisis, the army chief takes over. The U.S., desiring Pakistan's help to fight a nearby evil (communism in the '50s and '60s, Soviets in Afghanistan in the '80s, terrorism now), embraces the man in uniform. In time, the army's strong hand becomes a dead weight, stifling the development of democratic institutions and new leadership. Eventually, military defeat or other setbacks drive the army back to barracks. The cycle starts again--with everything and everyone more desperate.

The tragedy now unfolding began with Musharraf's October 1999 coup, which displaced the avaricious, incompetent but fairly elected government of Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan's Supreme Court, in legitimating the 1999 coup, ruled that elections must be held by October 2002. The Pakistani Constitution dictates that an elected parliament shall select or affirm the president.

Tuesday's referendum is Musharraf's way to popularly validate his superior power as president for five more years and to pre-empt the outcome of the October elections. He seeks to protect his primacy from the machinations of the two major political parties and their leaders--Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League and Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Bhutto and Sharif each have governed, failed, and fallen twice. Both are in de facto exile. Both wish to ride back into power on a wave of votes from desperate, patronage-dependent elites.

In terms of policy substance, a strong case can be made that the Musharraf government displays more integrity and effectiveness than the governments of Bhutto and Sharif ever did.

Still, Pakistan is supposed to be a democracy and Musharraf recognizes that his position and the future progress of Pakistan will not be sustainable if the government's legitimacy is not settled through democratic principles. He seeks to undo this knot by saying that "true democracy" has two elements. One is the process of elections; the second is the way the government functions. As a results-oriented general, the latter is more important: "People say I am not elected, but the true essence of democracy is there now." Elections will "put the label on it."

This is Musharraf's big, perhaps tragic mistake. Politicians will not accept the referendum as a substitute for their own constitutional role in selecting the president. Whatever happens on Tuesday, the big political crisis will come after the October elections, unless Musharraf supporters win free and fair elections. Musharraf's lack of a political party base makes this unlikely, despite his personal popularity.

Rather than focusing on Musharraf as the embodiment of reform, as the referendum has, the light should shine on the political institutions that must be reformed if progress is to be sustained. Respected Pakistani figures, led by former finance minister and World Bank vice president Javed Burki, have proposed a slate of electoral and party reforms that would in particular make political parties more open and accountable. Without such reforms, "democracy" in Pakistan will remain an exercise in patronage and power.

As a democratic Pakistani commentator noted recently, "The single greatest sin of Pakistan's politicians is their failure to make their political parties into enduring institutions. Our parties are one-person pantomimes. . . . Take that one person away and the pantomime crumbles. ... Not one of Pakistan's political parties has ever held a meaningful internal election."

The period between now and the October elections is vital. The best way for the U.S. to support its new friend will not be to concentrate on his virtues or vices, but to insist on broader political reforms. U.S. officials and observers should use their unavoidable roles as patrons and critics to call attention to the vital challenge of reforming political parties and setting fair rules for the electoral game. Real reform also requires the army genuinely to transfer political and economic power to civilians.

As important, the "rule of law" needs to be written back into the Pakistani script. Without the international community's insistence, and organized pressure from Pakistanis, the October campaign will not feature advocacy of the rule of law as a way out of the eternal mess of Pakistani politics. As long as the Pakistani state is not built on the rule of law, and politics does not rise above personality feuds, it will never be stable. Individuals and corporations will not invest their talents or money in such a petty, unreliable setting.

As the recurring Pakistani drama plays out, the United States should adopt policies and rhetoric that support short-term interests and themes that travel well to other lands and times.

Political and electoral reform, and the rule of law, fit this bill without prejudicing the fate of America's friend Pervez Musharraf.

George Perkovich is a senior associate with the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace