Democracy in Pakistan

Historically, in Pakistan, the see-saw game between democracy and army rule started soon after its formation in 1947

Democracy in Pakistan

Defying all negative predictions about its continuity in office and amidst all sorts of political troubles, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led government under President Asif Ali Zardari has successfully completed its fixed term in office. In the beginning and middle of its term the incumbent government faced resistance from various quarters. That made many political pundits share their thoughts on the murky future of democracy in Pakistan. But things did not become worse and visceral situations for democracy were politically managed by the political parties. During its troubled days, Pakistan has presented a new form of democratic competition. Ideologically different political groups had joined their hands against a common ‘opponent’: the Pakistan army. There were moments when the two leading political parties the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had acted in unison just to maintain the momentum of democracy in Pakistan.

After passing through various types of litmus test democratic rules, Pakistan has just moved into the next stage. At present, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has declared that general elections will be held in the middle of May this year. The incumbent government had tendered its resignation and caretaker government under the prime ministership of the retired judge Mir Hazar Khan Khosa will carry the baton of democracy until the next government comes into power. After the news of elections, even the former president General Pervez Musharraf has arrived in Pakistan from self-exile in London and Dubai. He had floated a political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, and he is all set to test his popularity in the coming elections.

The good news is that amidst all this peaceful democratic transition, the Pakistan army, the most powerful and omnipresent institution in Pakistan has no authoritative say. This event is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history, not because there is going to be a democratic transition or free and fair voting, rather, it is the first time the army is more or less out of the entire process. In the past, free and fair elections had also taken place in Pakistan; the 1970 election was more or less fair, otherwise, it would have been impossible for Sheikh Mujibur Rehman to win so many seats in the eastern part of Pakistan. The non-acceptance of that result led to the break-up of Pakistan and liberation of Bangladesh after the India-Pakistan war of 1971.Then, the election of Benazir Bhutto in 1988 was also more or less fair. She received all-out support because of her constant fight against the dictatorship of the General Ziaul Haq regime. Even the last election in 2008 was quite fair. The Asif Ali Zardari-led PPP won because it got sympathy votes from the people.

Well, many people may not accept that the elections I have mentioned were fair, but if the real yardstick is taken into account to measure ‘fairness’, then I think except for one or two countries in the developing world, all will fail. By proving that free and fair elections were held in the past does not mean one is accepting that Pakistan has procedural democracy at its best. No it is not. In the past, civilian governments in Pakistan were formed, sustained, and depended on the mercy of the army. Also, sometimes situations were created by the army to make space through ‘democratic’ means for their civilian ‘protégé’ to be at the helm of affairs.

Historically, in Pakistan, the see-saw game between democracy and army rule started soon after its formation in 1947. After the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 and the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan on October 16, 1951, Pakistan became a rudderless ship and lost direction. After the two stalwarts there were no mainstream popular leaders left in Pakistan and a leadership vacuum was created. The bureaucracy and army exploited the opportunity and captured political power. They got support from the Pakistani elite and religious groups during their stay in power, and they are now used to leading coups against civilian rulers. Even when they are out of power they rule from behind the curtain. One thing that makes the PPP-led government a bit different from the other civilian regimes in the past is it has managed to keep the army more or less away from all decision-making processes.

It is true that the incumbent government has failed on many accounts. The office-bearers, including the head of state, had been facing charges for their indulgence in money laundering and other corruption activities. Yet, it should be, though half-heartedly, ‘appreciated’ because it has managed to re-start the democratic process. The PPP-led government should also be acknowledged for two important steps: first, it is responsible for passing of the 18th Amendment to the Pakistan constitution, which is an attempt to slash down the ‘Punjabisation of Pakistan’ effect. It had also announced the Aghaaz-e-Haqooq package for Balochistan. Though this package could not address the genuine grievances of the Baloch against the Pakistani state, it is still a way to engage with the aggrieved citizens. Secondly, the incumbent government has managed to develop an all-out consensus in favour of having a civilian-regime in Pakistan.

To conclude, the upcoming polls are going to decide the fate of democracy in Pakistan. Instead of casting their valuable vote to a protégé of the army or a former General, the people’s vote for someone who has a vision to embed ‘true’ democracy in Pakistan shall be highly appreciated.


The writer is an assistant professor (guest) at the Delhi University, New Delhi. He can be reached at