Remembering the Bhutto-PNA impasse

The one exception in Pakistan’s history of election delays and postponements

Remembering the Bhutto-PNA impasse


n Pakistan’s history of election delays and postponements, there is one notable exception: Then prime minister, ZA Bhutto announced on January 7, 1977, that general elections would be held in March, several months before the incumbent assembly’s term was set to end. He also sought to assurethe people that the electoral exercise would be fair and free. Accordingly, the president dissolved the assemblies, and the Election Commission fixed March 7 and 10 for polling for National and Provincial Assembly elections, respectively.

To mount a tough electoral challenge to the Pakistan Peoples Party under Bhutto, nine opposition parties came together to form a coalition, called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), on January 21, thirteen days after the announcement of elections. The PNA geared up its electoral campaign quite vigorously and was able to hold large rallies and gatherings. However, these were no match for the Bhutto’s popularity. Despite facing allegations of corruption and factional strife, Bhutto’s party was a dominant force in the election.

Bhutto was unable to campaign in most constituencies as he had done in the 1970 elections. Still, most administration officials and various intelligence agencies predicted that the PPP would win between 95 and 120 general seats out of 192 in the National Assembly. With the support of eight tribal members and six minority representatives, who generally sided with the majority party, as well as ten seats reserved for women, the party would comfortably secure a majority in a house of 216.

Three days before the elections, the Intelligence Bureau predicted that the PPP would win as many as 71 National Assembly seats from the Punjab. However, when the results came out on the evening of March 7 and on March 8, the PPP was reported to have won a stunning 155 of the 192 general seats, including 108 of the 116 seats from the Punjab.

The PNA alleged that the elections had been massively rigged and rejected the results. They also boycotted the scheduled provincial assembly elections on March 10 and demanded the resignation of the prime minister.The parties soon launched a mass protest movement to press for their demand. Alleging that the Bhutto regime had resorted to various malpractices including corruption, coercion, violence and fraud to win its victory, the PNA demanded that fresh elections be held under an impartial caretaker setup,.

In a preliminary investigation, the Election Commission conceded that the elections in nearly half a dozen constituencies were rigged. Later, the Zia-ulHaq regime published a White Paper consisting of nearly 1,000 pages of documents suggesting that the PPP had rigged the elections. However, the evidence is mostly vague and inconclusive.

The PNA leaders were possibly carried away by the large crowds. Air Marshal Asghar Khan (retired), the leader of Tehreek-i-Istiqlal, or instance, had not only predicted victory but also vowed to hang Bhutto at the Kohala Bridge on the Jhelum River. The PNA leaders appeared determined to allege rigging even before the elections were held. Professor GhafoorAhmed of Jamaat-i-Islami, an important leader of the PNA, later admitted that Bhutto might have won a “clear majority” even if the elections were held in a freeand fair manner.

Even before the elections were held, PNA leaders were determined to allege rigging.

On March 12, the PNA council declared its intention to launch a mass movement to secure the resignation of the prime minister, the dismissal of the newly elected assemblies, and holding of elections under the supervision of the judiciary and the army. On April 28, Bhutto asserted on the floor of the National Assembly that the CIA and the American embassy in Islamabad had encouraged and funded the PNA movement.

The Bhutto regime responded to the PNA’s challenge with a stick and carrot strategy. On March 12, in a televised address, the prime minister denounced the PNA leaders, labelling their allegations fake and false, but still extended an invitation for talks. However, the PNA made it clear that they would only talk with the ruling party if their demands, including Bhutto’s resignation, were accepted.

On March 25, the government arrested the top leadership of the PNA, including its president Mufti Mahmood. Talks therefore could not take place during the month of April. While the top and second-rankPNA leaderswere in jail, workers of some religious parties and prayer leaders of mosques continued the movement.In time they added the demand for Islamisingthe society (Nizam-i-Mustafa) to their already stated demands.

On April 17, in an attempt to quell the opposition’s momentum, Bhutto banned drinking and gambling and shut down nightclubs. Next, on May 18, he visited Mufti Mahmood, who was being held at the Sihala rest house (which had been converted into a jail), and reiterated his willingness to hold fresh elections. He once again extended an invitation to the PNA for talks. Negotiations finally commenced on June 3, with Abdul Hafiz Pirzada and MaulanaKausarNiazi representing the government and Mufti Mahmood, NawabzadaNasrullah Khan and ProfGhafoorAhmed representing the PNA.

Several meetings took place in the Cabinet Room at the PM’s Secretariat. The environment was reported to be generally pleasant. When the talks deadlocked, Bhutto broke the silence by engaging in lighter chit chat. The PNA eventually withdrew its demand for the prime minister’s resignation. Bhutto, too, was also conciliatory.

However, any agreement required the unanimous approval of the PNA council, which consisted of two representatives from each of its nine constituent parties. In the end, four of them were not in favour of an agreement with the government. Asghar Khan tried more than once to convince the PNA that the army would hold fresh elections within 90 days of taking power. The two sides held their twelfth negotiating session on the evening of July 1 and reached an agreement on nearly all issues. However, on July 4, the newspapers reported that the government and the PNA had once again reached an impasse.

In a press conference at 11:30 pm, Bhutto announced his intention to accept the ten new points proposed by the PNA negotiating team, stating that they had brought them in apologetically and perhaps felt helpless. He declared that he would sign the accord the following day. However, Gen Zia-ulHaq declared martial law and prevented Bhutto from redeeming his promise. Pakistan continued to be plagued by interventions and political engineering. The fact is that politics is all about negotiations, deadlocks, renegotiations and breakthroughs. No actor should be allowed to trample the rules of the political game.

The writer heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, UoL. He can be reached at He tweets @AbrarZahoor1

Remembering the Bhutto-PNA impasse