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Post Democracy by hassan askari

Pakistan has a troubled track record of democracy. The current efforts to renew democratic Governance and political management began with the February 2008 general Elections and the establishment of elected governments at the federal and provincial levels in March. This democratic political dispensation has withstood a variety of social, economic, religious and security challenges in 2008-2010. However, it is not yet possible to suggest that democratic institutions and processes have become non-reversible. This is the fourth attempt to establish a viable and stable civilian democratic political order in Pakistan. The three previous attempts were interrupted by the military’s assumption of political power. The first effort to install a democratic political order was initiated in the immediate aftermath of independence in August 1947 and lasted until October 1958, when the Army chief, General Ayub Khan, assumed power. During these years the political institutions and processes degenerated and the bureaucracy and the military gained ascendancy.
The second democratic phase was spread over December 1971 to July 1977, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto headed the civilian political order. His efforts to consolidate civilian political order and constitutional rule came to an end when the military assumed power under General Zia-ul-Haq.
The third unsuccessful bid to stabilize democracy was made between Decembers
1988 and October 1999. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif served two terms each as elected prime ministers. The military top command wielded selective influence on policy making from the sidelines. In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf displaced
Nawaz Sharif’s civilian government and returned the country to military rule
The fourth and present effort to return to a viable democracy is threatened by growing social and political polarization and strife, a troubled economy, poor governance, and religious extremism and terrorism. The devastation caused by the floods in August 2010 increased the economic and political vulnerabilities of the civilian political order. It is therefore not possible to argue that democracy and civilian rule are well established. Their future is uncertain, although all major political parties undertake to protect and advance democracyThe Democracy Debate
There is a wide discrepancy between democratic rhetoric and the ground political realities
in Pakistan. The politically active circles and societal groups support democracy in principle. They acknowledge the rule of law, socio-economic justice, accountability of the rulers and, above all, fair and free elections as the characteristics of a desirable political system. They subscribe to these principles in their speeches and statements and all political parties emphasize these principles in their election manifestos. However, these principles are not fully reflected in day-to-day politics. The political realities often negate these principles. Most civilian and military rulers pursue personalization of power and authoritarian political management. They assign a high premium to loyalty on the part of party members and often use state patronage and resources in a highly partisan manner.
The wide gap between the professed democratic values and the operational realities of authoritarianism and non-viable civilian institutions can be described as an important feature of Pakistan’s political experience. Consequently, neither has democracy become sustainable nor has authoritarianism and military rule gained legitimacy as a credible alternate to democracy.
Many people also scrutinize democracy on the basis of its quality. They monitor if the rulers implement the basic principles of democracy in letter and spirit. These principles include constitutional liberalism, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, civil and political freedoms and socio-economic equity. If a democratic order falters on these criteria, they question its genuineness and dispute the legitimacy of the rulers. The repeated failures to set up viable civilian and democratic institutions and processes have not dampened the passions of the politically informed and active people for democracy. One Pakistani writer has described this phenomenon in these words:
“Despite democracy languishing for most of the past fifty years, despite being in tantrums, in doldrums, and in utter disarray, the passion for democracy could yet never be extinguished nor dislodged from the deepest recesses of the social consciousness of the general Pakistani populace.”1 Pakistan’s political history is characterized by frequent breakdowns of constitutional and political arrangements, atrophy of political institutions and processes, ascendancy of the bureaucracy and the military, and constitutional and political engineering by military rulers to protect their power interests. There are those who argue that western democracy has failed in Pakistan because it does not suit Pakistan. This point of view was projected by the first military regime led by General Ayub Khan, whoclaimed that he had evolved a system of guided democracy that suited the “genius” of the people and that this system would prepare the ordinary people for full democracy.2
The other perspective on democracy in Pakistan rejects the notion that it has failed.
The argument is that the military and the bureaucracy have dominated the political scene for such a long time that democracy could not be really practiced.3 Ahmad Faruqui lamented that the democratic wave that swept the globe in the eighties and the nineties had “bypassed Pakistan.”4 Shamshad Ahmad thought that feudalism was the major obstacle to realization of the ideals of democracy.5 A former lieutenant general, Talat Masood, argued that a heavy reliance on the military stifled the evolution of democratic institutions.6 Syed Jaffar Ahmed thought that Pakistan’s emergence as a national security state that assigned the highest priority to external security strengthened the military and weakened the political institutions and the society.7 These views are shared by Rasul B. Rais who argues that the decline of the political institutions and the ascendancy of the military were linked with Pakistan’s perceived external and internal insecurities.8
While recognizing the weakness of the civil society, Marvin Weinbaum argues that the societal forces “are hardly feeble” and that Pakistan could become “both an ideological (Islamic) and a democratic state.” He maintains that the opportunities for the emergence of civil society and civic culture “will be enhanced the longer the period during which democratic practices are allowed to prevail,” and that economic factors are also integral to “a sustainable democracy.”9 However, Asir Ajmal maintains that democracy is inconsistent with the spirit of Islam. He argues that Islam does not favour a system of government based on popular sovereignty and equality.10 These views are shared by a section of Islamic scholars who view democracy as a western implantMahmood Monshipouri and Amjad Samuel describe Pakistani experiments in democracy as “fickle, fractious and short-lived” and maintain that economic growth cannot facilitate democracy unless it is accompanied by social and political change and expansion of civil society.11
These comments show that the predicament of democracy in Pakistan cannot be explained with reference to a single factor. A host of factors have resulted in repeated constitutional and political breakdowns and malfunctioning of democratic institutions and processes. This article first provides an overview of Pakistan’s political history to outline the repeated failures of democracy and then discusses the major causes and factors that contributed to this problem.
Historical Overview: The Cycle of Civilian and Military
Pakistan has so far experienced four military rules by Army chiefs (October 1958-June
1962, March 1969-December 1971, July 1977-December 1985, October 1999-November
2002). these military rulers were able to civilianize their military rule by taking measured steps that included co-option of a section of the political elite; constitutional changes to ensure the primacy of the ruling generals after the end of direct military rule; exclusion of the political leaders and parties that questioned the civilianization process; and the holding of carefully managed elections. Such post-withdrawal civilianized rules were by Ayub Khan (June 1962-March 1969), Zia-ul-Haq (March 1985-August 1988), and Pervez Musharraf (November 2002-March 2008). One general, Yahya Khan, could not do this because his military regime collapsed after losing the war to India and the establishment of Bangladesh in December 1971.
The period of civilian political rule included: August 1947-October 1958, December
1971-July 1977, December 1988-October 1999, and March 2008 to the writing of this paper.
The first phase of civilian rule experienced the gradual erosion of civilian institutions and the rise of the bureaucracy and the military as the key decision makers.
In October 1958, the military assumed all power. In other phases of civilian rule, including the current phase, the military exercised influence on external and internal security-related matters from the sidelines and it made sure that its professional and corporate interests were not threatened by the civilian political governments.
Pakistan began its career as an independent state in August 1947 with the parliamentary system of government and it adopted the Government of India Act, 1935, asthe interim constitution with some changes to suit the needs of an independent state.12
The focus of the early rulers of Pakistan was on the survival of the state in the face of
internal and external challenges.
Pakistan faced serious internal administrative and management problems caused by the partition of British India. It had to set up a new federal government in Karachi and a provincial government for East Bengal in Dhaka at a time when it lacked civil servants, trained human power and administrative infrastructure. It also had to set up an independent military force after the British Indian military was divided between India and Pakistan. It was also confronted with a difficult law and order situation as communal riots broke out and a mass of humanity migrated to and from Pakistan. The immediate relief to the incoming refugees and their permanent settlement were the toughest administrative and humanitarian problems that consumed much of the state’s energy for several years.
On the external front, Pakistan’s troubled relations with India arising out of the partition process, especially the first Kashmir War, 1947-48, built security pressure on the new state. Further, Afghanistan’s irredentist claims on Pakistani territory also perturbed Pakistani rulers. Consequently, Pakistani rulers were haunted by the fear of the collapse of the Pakistani state due to external and internal security pressures.
Pakistan shaped up as a security state whose priorities favoured a strong and assertive federal government, greater attention to the needs of territorial security, and focus on building a strong and well-equipped military. All this worked to the disadvantage of civilian institutions and process.
Pakistan had inherited weak political institutions, a strong bureaucracy and a strong military. This trend was reinforced by the initial efforts to strengthen internal and external security. This policy favoured state institutions like the bureaucracy and the military at the expense of civilian political institutions like political parties and elected legislature and executive. The imperative of representative governance, constitutionalism and power-sharing were ignored from the beginning.
Pakistan took almost nine years to frame the first constitution, which was enforced on March 23, 1956. By the time the constitution was introduced a strong tradition of violation of norms of parliamentary democracy had been established, and retired and serving top bureaucrats and senior military commanders acquired salience in governance and political management. Governor General Ghulam Muhammad and Governor General/President Iskander Mirza who had bureaucratic-military backgroundmanipulated weak and divided political forces with the blessing of the Army chief and top bureaucrats.
Pakistan had seven prime ministers and eight cabinets during 1947-58. If we exclude the period of the first prime minister, 1947-51, Pakistan had six prime ministers
and seven cabinets during 1951-58. It was during these seven years that Pakistan’s
civilian institutions, already weak and divided, degenerated and failed to assert their
primacy over the bureaucracy and the military.14
Pakistan faced a crisis of leadership with the demise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the
founder of Pakistan, on September 11, 1948, thirteen months after the establishment of
Pakistan. His lieutenant, Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, 1947-51, attempted
to fill the gap but he was assassinated in October 1951. This created a leadership crisis
because Jinnah’s successors had regional land local stature and did not have a nationwide
appeal, which regionalized and factionalized politics. The Muslim League that
inherited power from the British at the time of independence could not maintain its
momentum and was unable to provide a socio-economic programme that inspired the
people in different provinces. The political parties that succeeded the Muslim League
suffered from the handicaps that weakened the Muslim League. These handicaps
were: weak leadership, internal incoherence, factionalism based on region and personalities
of the leaders, and non-existence of an effective political machine for popular
The acute administrative problems, socio-economic underdevelopment and divided
political leadership that lacked popular support enabled the governor general/president
to manipulate politics and make or break a government at will. He was supported by
the top brass of the Army and the bureaucracy. The political forces could not withstand
their pressure.
The Army chief, General Ayub Khan, and President Iskander Mirza had no problem
in setting aside the constitution and imposing martial law on October 7, 1958,
setting the stage for the first direct military rule in Pakistan.16
Ayub Khan ruled as the first military ruler from October 1958 to June 1962 and
initiated many administrative and political changes. He introduced a Presidential Constitution on June 8, 1962, civilianizing his rule that ensured the continuity of the
key personnel and policies of the military rule period in the post-military rule period.17
Ayub Khan was replaced by another Army chief, Yahya Khan, on March 25, 1969,
when his government was paralyzed by street agitation. Yahya Khan abolished the 1962
Constitution given by Ayub Khan and headed the second military regime, which lacked
the capacity to address the demands from East Pakistan for socio-economic justice and
political participation. The military resorted to an extremely brutal military operation
in East Pakistan from March 25, 1971 onwards. This ended up in the war with India
in November-December which Pakistan lost, resulting in the breakup of the original
Pakistan, with the exit of its eastern wing, East Pakistan or East Bengal, from the federation
and its declaration as the independent state of Bangladesh.
Such a major military and political debacle caused the collapse of General Yahya
Khan’s military regime. No other general was in a position to take over. Power was
therefore transferred on December 20, 1971 to a civilian elected leader, Zulfikar Ali
Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party had won the largest number of seats in the
National Assembly from West Pakistan in the December 1970 general elections.18
Z.A. Bhutto was the only elected civilian leader to assert civilian primacy over the
military during his years in power, i.e., December 20, 1971 to July 5, 1977. His success
was owed to his popular base and the damage to the military’s reputation because of the
military debacle of December 1971. He retired a number of senior officers of the three
services and changed the military’s command structure. However, his authority over
the military eroded as his policy of nationalization alienated powerful economic groups
and Islamic elements; he sought the cooperation of the military to pursue his strident
approach towards India and employed authoritarian methods to suppress domestic opposition.
The opposition launched an anti-Bhutto agitation in March 1977 on the pretext
that his government had rigged the 1977 general elections. They also demanded the introduction
of Islamic political order as opposed to Bhutto’s socialistic policies. Finding
Bhutto under siege by the opposition, the Army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq, removed the
Bhutto government and imposed martial law in the country on July 5, 1977.19
General Zia-ul-Haq presided over the third military rule, which was the longest
in Pakistan’s political history, from July 5, 1977 to December 30, 1985. He secured
his rule by seeking the cooperation of orthodox and conservative Islamic parties and
groups and tilted state policies decisively in their favour. For the first time in Pakistan’s
history, the military regime used the state apparatus to impose Islamic injunctions
as articulated by orthodox and conservative Islamic clergy in return for their support
to the military regime. Western countries, especially the United States, began to support General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime when it joined with the west to build
Afghan-Islamic resistance to the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. This enabled
the Zia regime to obtain US and western economic and diplomatic support, which
contributed to the longevity of military rule.
Another consequence of the military regime-US collaboration for promoting the
Jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan was the strengthening of Islamic orthodoxy
and militancy in Pakistan. These religious elements and the military regime
joined together to stifle religious and cultural pluralism and participatory political processes.
Further, sophisticated weapons siphoned off from American CIA supplies to the
Afghan resistance became available in Pakistan, which different religious, ethnic and
criminal groups used to advance their individual agendas. The military government
and orthodox Islamic groups engaged in sustained propaganda against democracy. All
these adversely affected the prospects of democracy in Pakistan.
General Zia-ul-Haq civilianized his military regime in 1985 by introducing far
reaching changes in the 1973 Constitution to strengthen his powers, co-opting a section
of the political and religious elite, and holding a carefully regulated party-less elections
to the parliament and the provincial assemblies. He ensured his continuation in office
after the withdrawal of direct military rule and established a weak civilian government
under a docile prime minister in March 1985.
General Zia-ul-Haq found it difficult to work smoothly with the civilian prime
minister and removed his government in May 1988. However, before he could manipulate
the new elections to install another prime minter of his choice, he died in an air
crash on August 17, 1988.20
General Zia-ul-Haq’s death paved the way for elected civilian rule that lasted from
December 1988 to October 1999. The era of elected civilian rule began with much fanfare
when Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), assumed the
office of prime minister. She served as prime minister twice: December 1988-August
1990 and October 1993-November 1996. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim
League-Nawaz Group, also served twice as the prime minister: November 1990-July
1993 and February 1997-October 1999.
The period of democratic rule suffered from two deficiencies. First, the quality of
democracy was poor because both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif could not ensure
effective, efficient and corruption free governance and political management. The political
parties of these leaders were almost at war with each other. The party in power’s
main concern was survival of the government, which forced the prime minister to make
political compromises. The opposition party left no stone unturned to pull down the government. Consequently, no government could complete its tenure. These were dismissed
by the president with the blessings of the Army chief.
Second, the Army chief exercised strong influence on policy making from the sidelines.
One major concern of every civilian government during this phase was to avoid
the alienation of the Army chief. The strain in the relationship between the Army chief
and the prime minister worked to the disadvantage to the latter. Democratic institutions
and processes remained insecure during these years.21
The military returned to power for the fourth time on October 12, 1999, when the
Army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, assumed power after knocking out the civilian
government of Nawaz Sharif. He designated himself as the Chief Executive rather than
Chief Martial Law Administer, as was done by his predecessors. Martial law was not
imposed but the suspension of the constitution made Pervez Musharraf the supreme
authority in Pakistan.22
Like Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf managed a careful transition
to civilian rule in November 2002 in a manner that did not diminish his powers as the
president and the Army chief but brought in a civilian order under his command. This
was done by introducing far reaching changes in the 1973 Constitution before restoring
it, imposition of constraints on his political adversaries, cooption of a section of the
political elite (Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam Group led by Chaudhry Shujaat
Hussain) and the holding of carefully managed elections in October 2002.
His civilianized political order could not shape up as a viable political system. It remained
closely associated with General Pervez Musharraf, who called the shots rather
than the prime minister or the elected parliament. His rule ran into serious trouble
when he attempted to remove the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in March 2007 in
an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner. The lawyer community and the civil society
launched a mass movement against him, which was joined by the political parties.23
This marked the beginning of the end of his rule. He attempted to salvage his situation
by political manoeuvring but this did not work. The verdict of the February 2008
general elections was against him and his allied party, the PMLQ. Musharraf’s major
political adversaries, the PPP and the PMLN, won the maximum seats at the federal and
provincial levels. Despite losing credibility, Musharraf refused to quit the presidency. When the parliament decided to initiate impeachment against Musharraf, he found
himself completely isolated and resigned on August 18, 2008, marking the end to his
direct and indirect military rule.
Pakistan returned to democracy for the fourth time when a four-party coalition
government led by the PPP assumed power at the federal level in March 2008. Elected
coalition governments were installed in all four provinces.
The current democratic order faces a dilemma. On the one hand there is widespread
support for sustaining the democratic system. On the other hand a large number
of people are alienated from the present government due to poor governance, growing
socio-economic inequities, steep price hike of essential commodities, periodic shortages
of food items, power outages, and inflation and corruption in the official circles,
both at the federal and provincial levels. The deteriorating law and order situation and
terrorist attacks have created the impression that the elected governments lack the capacity
to address these challenges.
Most Islamic parties and circles have initiated an anti-campaign against the elected
federal government as a protest against the initiation of security operations against the
Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups.
The elected executive and parliament are also under pressure because of the
antagonistic disposition of the Supreme Court in the name of judicial activism. The
judges often make adverse comments in the courts on the working of the government
and, for months, the Supreme Court kept pressure on the federal government
for initiating criminal proceedings against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss courts,
although the Constitution provides immunity to the president against criminal proceedings.
Knowing the disposition of the Supreme Court, the opposition is challenging a
large number of the policy decisions of the federal government in the Supreme Court.
They hope that the Supreme Court would either knock out the federal government or
President Zardari.24
Another challenge for the present democratic set up is to maintain smooth interaction
with the top brass of the military. Given the traditional political clout of the
military, the civilian government has to take into account the sensitivities of the military
with reference to their professional and corporate interests. This limits the options
of the civil government for pursuing its foreign policy and security agenda.
Major Causes of Democracy Deficit
The aforementioned discourse clearly shows that Pakistan suffers from democracy
deficit and various attempts to establish viable representative institutions and processes
have not succeeded. A new attempt to return to democracy is underway now in Pakistan. Some of the major factors that have adversely affected the growth and
sustenance of democracy are discussed below.
Institutional Imbalance: Pakistan inherited instituted imbalance from the British
at the time of independence, which accentuated over time. The state institutions (the
bureaucracy, the military and the intelligence agencies) were more organized and powerful
than the political and civilian institutions, i.e., political parties, societal groups,
elected assemblies. The political leaders who inherited power at the time of independence
lacked the experience of handling the state institutions and the bureaucracy. The
imbalance could not be rectified in favour of the political leaders and institution for two
inter-related reasons.
First, the weak political institutions inherited by Pakistan could not overcome
their weaknesses. Rather, these declined rapidly because the political leadership did
not show adequate capacity for coping with the problems in the immediate aftermath
of independence and failed to create a coherent and stable government. The Muslim
League that led the independence movement could not transform itself from a nationalist
movement to a nationwide party that evoked the voluntary loyalty of the diversified
Pakistani population. A large number of its leaders hailing from the Pakistani territory
had joined the party a couple of years before independence and thus did not have long
experience of working together for a shared political agenda. The feudal elements that
dominated the Muslim League within a couple of years were not committed to democratization
and constitutionalism. Rather, they created personalized alliances to promote
personal power agendas. Other political parties were no better and they suffered from
weak internal organization, poor leadership and uninspiring programmes. The political
leaders could not provide a powerful and coherent leadership to set the state agenda and
take effective control of the bureaucracy and the military.
Second, the bureaucracy and the military maintained their professional disposition,
characterized by hierarchy, discipline and commitment to the service, which gave them
an advantage over the disparate political elite. They relied heavily on the bureaucracy
and the military for coping with the problems caused by incoming refugees and for
setting up the administrative structure of the new state. Over time, the reliance turned
into a dependency relationship, shifting the political initiative out of the hands of the
political leaders.
Pakistan experienced the relative decline of civilian institutions and the ascendancy
of the bureaucratic-military institution in the first decade of independence. This
process was hastened after the people with bureaucratic and military background assumed
the office of head of state. Ghulam Mohammad, a former bureaucrat, served as
governor general, 1951-55 and Iskander Mirza, who had a mixed army and bureaucracy
background, was governor general, 1955-56 and president, 1956-58. They manipulated
politics with the support of the top bureaucracy and the military high command The military-bureaucracy cooperation strengthened during the military rule when
the military ruled the country with the help of the bureaucracy. The military had the
upper hand over the bureaucracy. However, the bureaucracy’s clout increased vis-à-vis
the political forces and the ordinary people. With the exception of the civilian government
of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (December 1971-July 1977), the civilian governments
relied heavily on the bureaucracy and attempted to woo the military.
The role of the intelligence agencies in the political domain expanded during the
military rule by General Zia-ul-Haq. He relied heavily on the Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI) and the Military Intelligence (MI) to pursue the political agenda. A civilian intelligence
agency was also used, i.e., the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The ISI’s position was
strengthened as it played a key role in building Afghan-Islamic resistance to Soviet
troops in Afghanistan with the cooperation of the CIA. Most of the funding to the
Afghan-Islamic resistance from the CIA and other sources was processed through the
ISI, enabling it to strengthen its influence on the Afghan-Islamic resistance and to use
these funds to build its organizational strength. The ISI interfered in the 1988 and 1990
general elections by providing funds and campaign support to the opponents of the PPP
led by Benazir Bhutto. Similarly, its blessings helped Nawaz Sharif to obtain two-thirds
of the seats in the National Assembly (so-called heavy mandate) in the 1997 elections.
During the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf, the ISI and the MI closely
monitored politics and were the main channels of interaction with the political forces.
The ISI maintains close connections with the media and the political forces and uses
these linkages when and if needed to pursue the Army’s political agenda.
Periodic manipulation of politics and political forces by the intelligence agencies
has created distortions in the political process that undermine the prospects of a viable
Military Security Priorities: As discussed in the earlier section, the perceived
external threat, mainly from India, and the fear of internal collapse due to the initial
problems led the policy makers to assign the highest priority to external and internal
security. Consequently, territorial security was assigned precedence over democratization
of the polity.
The security priorities shaped Pakistan’s political choices that were inimical to promoting
participatory governance. The focus was on centralization of power, impatience
towards dissent and strengthening of the military. All Pakistani governments assigned
more national resources to defence and security than to education, health care and social
development. This contributed to atrophy of civilian institutions and democracy.
The troubled relations with India, especially the Indo-Pakistan wars, have caused
several distortions in Pakistan’s political choices. The threat of India was often invoked
in Pakistan to suppress political dissent and to justify delays in holding elections.
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States focused more on Pakistan’s military security
needs. The Army chief made a significant contribution to building the alliance
relationship with the US in the mid-1950s. Their reinvigorated relations in 1980s and
since September 2001 have been influenced more by security considerations.
Pakistan’s security paranoia made it extremely difficult for the rulers to pay
adequate attention to strengthening the civilian institutions and processes in the democratic
framework. If the relations between India and Pakistan improve the latter would
find it easy to function as a normal state oriented towards democracy. It would also be
able to pay more attention to societal development, promote socio-cultural and political
pluralism and resolve the political and social conflict through dialogue and accommodation.
This means that the reduction of external security pressures, especially the
improvement of India-Pakistan relations, can facilitate democracy in Pakistan.
Political Consensus Building: The democratic process cannot stabilize unless the
key political players evolve a minimum consensus on the operational norms of the political
system. This minimum consensus is the beginning point and it needs to expand
over time if civilian political institutions and processes are to endure.
Pakistan’s political leaders and political parties agree on the need of having democracy
but they find it difficult to evolve a widely shared consensus on the details of
institutions and processes under the rubric of democracy. Whenever some consensus is
managed it cannot last for a long time because the competing political interests either
back out or give new meanings to the agreed principles to serve their narrow partisan
interests. There is a tendency to support democracy as long as it serves the partisan
agenda or its principles are interpreted to justify one’s political demands or to question
the legitimacy of the political adversary.
Pakistan’s two constituent assemblies took almost nine years to frame the first
constitution because the political leaders quarrelled over several key constitutional issues,
i.e., the nature of federalism, representation of the provinces in federal legislature,
especially the issue of representation of the then East Bengal/East Pakistan in the federal
legislature, the national language, separate or joint electorate, and presidential or
parliamentary system. A consensus evolved on these issues after a long-drawn effort
and the 1956 Constitution was introduced but this consensus was frequently ignored
or questioned by competing political interests. This consensus broke down completely
when the Army chief assumed power in October 1958.
The 1962 Constitution introduced by the military government in June 1962 was
based on a selective consensus. A section of the political class, especially the leaders
from East Pakistan, questioned its legitimacy. This constitution was set aside when
another general, Yahya Khan, assumed power in March 1969.
The 1973 Constitution (the present constitution) represented the widest possible
consensus on any constitutional document in Pakistan. However, this was distorted
from time to time to serve the interests of the power elite.
The major damage to the consensus on the 1973 Constitution was done by the military
regimes of General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf. Both introduced far-reaching changes in the constitution in 1985 and 2002 respectively to serve their
power interests. Interestingly enough the parliaments approved most of these changes.
The parliament elected in February 2008 appointed an all-party committee to thoroughly
review the 1973 Constitution to remove the distortions made by the military
rulers. Its recommendations were unanimously approved by the parliament as the 18th
Constitutional Amendment (2010), which represented a rare consensus in the parliament.
However, a number of political groups and individuals filed writs in the Supreme
Court to secure judicial rejection of the consensus-based amendment.
Political Leaders and Political Parties: Democratic evolution is facilitated by
political parties and leaders. These engage in interest articulation and aggregation and
mobilize popular support for different policy options. In Pakistan, the political parties
and leaders were unable to perform these roles, thereby failing to strengthen democracy.
The political parties were not able to fulfil their obligations towards strengthening
democracy for a number of reasons. First, political parties faced restrictions on their
activities from time to time. The military governments either banned them or placed
enormous restrictions on their role.
The first military government (1958-1962) banned the political parties, confiscated
their records and disallowed a large number of political leaders from participating in
politics for six years, 1960-66.
The second military government (1969-1971) placed restrictions on the activities
of political parties. This ban was lifted when the December 1970 elections approached.
The third military government (1977-1987) began with restricting political activity
and, in 1979, banned all political parties. It subjected the PPP to punitive action, including
an undeclared restriction on the publication of the photograph of its leader, Zulfikar
Ali Bhutto, after he was hanged in pursuance of a dubious judgment of the Supreme
Court. In 1985 it held party-less elections to exclude the leaders of established political
The fourth military government (1999-2002) did not ban their activities but targeted
the PPP and the PMLN for punitive actions.
Political parties have their own problems that adversely affected their roles. Most
political parties lack effective internal organization and depend on their leaders who
run them like their fiefdoms. The internal pattern of authority has been oligarchic with
no established tradition of open competitive internal party elections. As most parties
depend on donations from affluent members, they exercise enormous influence in
party affairs.
Political parties form electoral alliances and set up coalition governments but
these moves are generally temporary in nature because each coalition partner works
towards maximizing its gains at the expense of others. The principal partner in a coalition
has to make policy compromises and accommodate the partners for distribution of state patronage and other rewards of power to sustain the coalition government. The
imperatives of democracy are often ignored.
Most Pakistani political leaders have a local or regional electoral following, which
compromises their capacity for nationwide mobilization. The military regimes co-opt
some leaders as a part of their effort to civilianize their character. Such leaders are
given nationwide projection but they cannot sustain themselves at the top after losing
the blessings of the military and the intelligence agencies.
Only four leaders can be described as having nationwide statures. Muhammad Ali
Jinnah, often called the Great Leader, led the independence movement, giving him a
charismatic appeal. He died within 13 months of the establishment of Pakistan. The
other three leaders met with unnatural deaths. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister
of Pakistan, was assassinated in October 1951 while addressing a public meeting
in Rawalpindi. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister and chairman of the PPP,
was executed by the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq in Rawalpindi in April
1979. Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and leader of the PPP, was assassinated
in December 2007 as she came out of an election rally in Rawalpindi. The leadership
crisis has also contributed to a weakening democracy.
Islam and Democracy: The debate on the compatibility of Islam with democracy
has also compromised the resolve of a section of politically active circle to pursue democracy.
Some religious scholars argue that western democracy and Islam do not go
together and that democracy has to adjust to the requirements of Islamic principles and
teachings. Some Islamic leaders and parties view elections and democracy as instruments
for introducing an Islamic political order. There is no commitment to democracy
as such.
Most Pakistanis favour a relationship between Islam and the political system.
However, they diverge on the precise nature of this relationship. Most conservative and
orthodox clergy favour establishment of a puritanical Islamic state with an emphasis on
the regulative, punitive and extractive role of Islamic injunctions.
Others emphasize the egalitarian norms of Islam and view Islamic teachings as
sources of guidance and law-making rather than a specific structure of governance.
Law-making, in their view, is to be done by an elected legislature that fulfils the basic
requirement of a modern democratic order.
Pakistan’s constitutions and the ruling elite subscribed to the latter view of the
relationship between Islam and the Pakistani political system. The orthodox clergy
questioned the Islamic nature of these arrangements but the ruling elite rejected their
General Zia-ul-Haq was the first Pakistani ruler to use the state apparatus to
implement the orthodox perspective of Islam in the society. This was done to win
over conservative and orthodox Islamic clergy for his military government. However,
the greater identification of the state with Islamic orthodoxy accentuated differences among various Islamic denominational groups. A host of extremist and sectarian groups
that emerged during these years used violence against each other. Some of them joined
hands with the military government to oppose what they described as western democracy,
elections on the basis of universal adult franchise, women rights and equality of
all citizens irrespective of religion.
Some of the changes made in the legal and constitutional system by General Ziaul-
Haq to promote Islamic orthodoxy were not changed by his successors because they
lacked sufficient political support to confront orthodox Islamic and extreme political
right elements. Consequently, a number of laws of the Zia era that are discriminatory
towards women and religious minorities and especially the Ahmadiya community are
still applicable in Pakistan.
Religious Intolerance and Militancy: There is a perceptible increase in religious
and cultural intolerance in Pakistan. Various Islamic vigilante and militant groups
and their supporters use violence to impose their vision of Islam. The roots of these
trends go back to the days of General Zia-ul-Haq’s military government when he
encouraged Islamic orthodoxy and militancy as a state policy. The conflicts between
various Islamic denominational groups have increased. Invariably the religious groups
subscribing to or supporting Islamic militancy are more active in building pressure on
those who do not share their perspective on Islam.25
The most serious threat to democracy in Pakistan comes from the Taliban and
other militant groups that challenge the Pakistani state by engaging in armed conflict
with Pakistan’s military or resorting to various kinds of terrorist activities, including
suicide attacks, roadside bombings and armed attacks. They aim at overwhelming the
Pakistani state by causing instability and chaos.
The Military’s Political Stakes: The growth and sustainability of democratic institutions
and processes was disrupted periodically by the military’s direct assumption
of power. The military governments endeavoured to restructure the political system to
their preferences, which reflected their ethos of hierarchy, discipline and management
rather than political participation and accommodation of diverse perspectives. These
military rulers also manipulated the political forces and leaders either to restrict their
role or win them over to their side.
The Pakistan military has developed strong stakes in policy making on security
and foreign policy issues, making it impossible for civilian leaders to function
autonomously or assert their primacy in policy making. Further, the Pakistan military
maintains strong interests in governmental affairs because it wants to protect its professional
and corporate interests, especially its industrial and commercial activities, which
yield financial resources to the military that are beyond parliamentary control The military’s position is also strengthened due to external security pressures.
It is viewed as a shield against the threat from India and security pressures from
Afghanistan, thereby making it directly relevant to policymaking. The Army and the
Air Force are now engaged in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations
along with the paramilitary forces. This further underlines the importance of the military.
The remarkable effort on the part of the three services of the military, especially
the Army, for rescue and relief work for the people affected by the massive floods in
August 2010 showed that the military has the organizational capacity and technical
skills to cope with the emergency situation. This has helped to improve the military’s
image in the society.
The position of the civilian government is weak because the political forces are
divided and the quality of governance and political management is poor. This makes
it difficult for the civilian leaders to deal with the traditionally powerful and assertive
military. The civilian government cannot afford to ignore the military’s sensitivities
regarding its service matters, economic and business interests and the security policy.
This reflects negatively on the quality of democracy.
Deficit of Democratic Culture: There is a wide discrepancy between the imperatives
of democracy and the disposition of individuals and society in Pakistan. Individual
behaviour often manifests non-democratic and authoritarian orientations in family and
societal contexts. This creates a strain between the professed values and how the society
Pakistan’s semi-feudal and semi-modern Pakistani society did not regularly
practise participatory decision-making, conflict resolution through dialogue and accommodation,
respect for difference of opinion and religio-cultural pluralism. Pakistan
experienced the rise of religious and ethnic intolerance. Different Muslim denominational
groups engaged in mutual recrimination and often resorted to violence against
each other.
Therefore most of the people commit themselves to democracy only as rhetoric or
for criticizing their political adversaries for their alleged violation of democracy. Not
to speak of military governments, even civilian rulers have often showed impatience
towards dissent.
In Pakistan, defiance of the state authority or laws is viewed as a sign of power. A
powerful person is one who can get away with defiance of laws and regulations that
apply to ordinary people. Political leaders often preach defiance of state authority and
law as a strategy for challenging the government.
Five interrelated developments threaten the sustainability of democracy. First, democracy
is threatened if the majority establishes its “tyranny” over the minority and
refuses to accommodate the latter’s concerns and insecurities. In Pakistan, various
hard-line Islamic groups threaten religious minorities in the society and the state is
often unable or unwilling to protect their rights as guaranteed by the constitution. Second, poor governance by the elected government and its inability to reduce the
growing economic pressures on the common people are alienating the latter. The ordinary
people are hit hard by an acute price hike, periodic shortage of food items and lack
of personal security against intimidation by some societal groups. If such alienation
is not remedied, the credibility of civilian elected institutions will suffer irreparable
Third, the tone and contents of political discourse between the government and
the opposition is non-democratic and extremist. They engage in polemical exchanges
and pay little attention, if any, to addressing socio-economic problems. Such a political
discourse spoils the environment within which democracy functions.
Fourth, the opposition engages in political campaigns from time to time to malign
the government. The widely shared opposition perception is that the failure of the government
would facilitate the return of the PMLN to power at the federal level. Since the
Supreme Court’s judgment on the NRO in December 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari
has found himself to be the main target of the opposition propaganda because the opposition
thinks that their campaign would encourage the Supreme Court to disqualify
him from holding the presidency.
Fifth, an over-active and over-confident Supreme Court stepping frequently into
the domains of the executive and the legislature causes insecurity among the already
weak civilian and elected political institutions. Any attempt by the Supreme Court to
rectify the weaknesses and deficiencies of the current democratic order through its
judgments will be counter-productive.26
The societal disposition is predominantly non-democratic and the political class
lacks unanimity of views on sustaining democracy. Above all, the Supreme Court’s
enthusiasm to invoke judicial activism may not necessarily help democracy.
Concluding Remarks
Given Pakistan’s ethnic and regional diversity, democracy can be considered as a natural
political system. However, Pakistan has alternated between democracy and military
rule. There were four phases of democratic rule and four periods of direct military rule.
We can add three phases of civilianized military rule when the military rulers changed
to elected governments but there was no meaningful shift in power from the ruling
generals and the major policies remained unchanged. A section of the political elite
were co-opted into the system and agreed to work within the parameters set out by the
Participatory political institutions and processes did not function long enough
to develop strong roots in society and become self-sustaining. Pakistan experienced
periodic constitutional and political breakdown, the rise of the bureaucracy and the military, and the assumption of power by the generals who tampered with the political
system to sustain their primacy in the political system.
If the over ambitious generals did not allow the autonomous growth and sustainability
of democratic institutions and processes, the political leaders and societal forces
were equally responsible for the abysmal performance of civilian rulers and setbacks to
A number of factors contributed to the weakening of the political forces and the
expansion of the role of the military. These include the poverty of civilian leadership
and weak and disparate political parties that could not create a credible civilian alternative
to military authoritarian rule. Poor governance and failure to rise above narrow
partisan interests weakened their capacity to work together and create broad-based
consensus on the basic features of the political system.
The external security paranoia, a neglect of social development and insensitivity
to the imperative of a viable economy and good governance made it difficult for civilian
leaders to cultivate the voluntary support of the common people. This made them
vulnerable to manipulation by the military directly or indirectly through intelligence
This does not mean that Pakistan is a lost case for democracy. The common people
as well as the politically active circles express strong commitment to democracy,
constitutionalism, independent judiciary and the rule of law. The authoritarian or military-
dominated rule has never been accepted as a normal or desirable political system.
The return of political leaders and political parties in the February 2008 general
elections was welcomed in Pakistan and it engendered the hope, once again, that
Pakistan would be able to sustain a participatory political system.
The growing role of the electronic and print media and greater activism on the part
of the civil society creates the hope that the latest experiment of democracy may be
successful. However, the challenges to the revived democracy are numerous and strong.
These challenges are posed not only by a self-confident military that wants to protect
its professional and corporate interests but also by the failings in the civilian sector.
The future of democracy is threatened by poor governance and management by the
federal and provincial governments, a troubled economy, declining internal stability
and harmony, religious and cultural intolerance, and terrorism.
The future of democracy depends on the transformation of the Pakistani state and
society, which is not likely to take place in the near future. There are people in Pakistan
who think that the return of Pakistan to democracy will turn Pakistan into a viable
democratic state.27 Others do not appear to be so optimistic and express doubts about
whether democracy can endure.28 Still others recognize flaws and deficiencies in the present day democracy but want to carry on with this experiment: “…if Pakistan has a
future, it has got to be democratic. One must, of course hope for a far better democracy,
for governments more attuned to people’s needs and less inclined to disregard the popular
will. This goal cannot be furthered through yet another military interlude.”29
Democracy in Pakistan is on the brink. It can go either way. It can collapse and
Pakistan can return to political chaos or military rule of some kind. It can shape up as a
stable system through a gradual and sustained process. If Pakistan’s political leadership
can address its weaknesses and the military shows patience, democracy has prospects
in Pakistan. Pakistan can move from “less” to “more” democracy.
Hasan Askari Rizvi is Professor Emeritus, Political Science, Punjab University, Lahore,
Pakistan, and Political and Defence Consultant
success has many fathers, failure is an orphan
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