State of democracy, the past and present

February 23, 2020

A fundamental impediment to ringing in a genuine democracy confronted Pakistan from the very beginning

As Pakistan continues to struggle on the path to attaining a genuine parliamentary democracy, all eyes are currently on Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government. Unfortunately, the high hopes his electorate – of which the rising urban middle class constitutes the core – invested in Imran Khan as the negation of the other two mainstream parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have yet to yield fruit. On the touchstone of handling the economy and running a parliamentary democracy, the PTI government has disappointed so far. But perhaps the fault lies more in the high expectations of this government than its performance in office over the last year and a half. Those expectations, of course, are rooted in the convoluted and complex history of the country’s travails in its journey towards democracy since independence.

A fundamental structural impediment to ringing in a genuine democracy confronted Pakistan from the very beginning, given its peculiar territorial makeup. Two wings, separated by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory, confronted the leadership of the new state with complexities. The fact that East Pakistan at independence in 1947 constituted a majority (54 percent) of the country’s population meant that the time honoured democratic principle of one-man-one-vote may end up yielding a permanent majority for the overwhelmingly Bengali populace of East Pakistan. This and the vexed questions surrounding the federal structure and provincial autonomy could not be resolved through the framing and promulgation of a constitution for nine long years after independence.

When, in 1956, a constitution finally saw the light of day, it was a unique construct. The provinces constituting West Pakistan, i.e. the Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then called the NWFP) and Balochistan were merged into One Unit and accorded ‘parity’ with the majority-population East Pakistan. It was a construct that, while obliterating the existence of the ancient provinces of West Pakistan with their own historical and cultural legacy, violated the one-man-one-vote principle of universal franchise and depreciated the vote of the citizen from East Pakistan in comparison with his/her counterpart in the western wing. The thought behind this move was obviously to weaken the hold of the natural majority of voters in East Pakistan in a democratic system and ensure that power remained concentrated in the western wing, particularly the Punjab, from which the majority of the two most powerful institutions inherited by the post-colonial state of Pakistan from British colonialism, the army and senior bureaucracy, were drawn.

The army and bureaucracy emerged after independence as more powerful than the political class. Their manoeuvrings of the political setup, initially (1947-1958) from behind the scenes, shed this artifice when, after 4 prime ministers had come and gone in the brief period 1956-1958, the whole system was wrapped up by army commander General Ayub Khan’s military coup. His partisan basic democracies presidential system failed to outlive his removal by the military under General Yahya Khan, when a countrywide agitation against his decade-long rule tolled in 1968-69 the death knell for Pakistan’s first military government.

Yahya ostensibly started off well by accepting the long-standing demand for the undoing of One Unit, and fair and free elections for a parliamentary democratic system in 1970. But he authored the breakup of the country by not accepting the majority mandate of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League and launching a military crackdown in East Pakistan. This resulted in the 1971 breaking away (with Indian help) of East Pakistan to re-emerge as Bangladesh. The Two Nation theory that had underpinned the pre-independence movement for Pakistan came into question as a result of this development. Logically, this outcome suggested that the majority religion was not a sufficient glue to hold the state together and democratic rights were a sine qua non for this purpose.

Constant attempts by the military-bureaucratic oligarchy that the country inherited from colonialism emerged as the single greatest obstacle to the development and consolidation of a genuine democracy.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his PPP were brought to power by the post-Yahya military after the 1971 debacle. Bhutto’s five years in power present the contradictory spectacle of steps towards a democratic dispensation (e.g. the 1973 Constitution) and widespread repression (e.g. the military crackdown in Balochistan and severe handling of the opposition) that resulted finally in his overthrow by the military under General Ziaul Haq in 1977.

Ziaul Haq’s long dark regressive night finally yielded to restoration of democracy in 1988.However, the democracy was shadowed by the draconian 8th Amendment introduced into the Constitution by Ziaul Haq. Three elected governments were dismissed by incumbent presidents under this law until Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N’s two thirds majority in the 1997 elections allowed the repeal of the notorious amendment.

The removal of this undemocratic instrument did not prevent another military coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. His military rule ended finally in 2008, after which the PPP’s elected government lost power through the ballot box to the PML-N in 2013 for the first time in the country’s history.

Imran Khan and his PTI challenged the Nawaz Sharif PML-N government through their dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad for months. Nawaz Sharif’s removal by the Supreme Court was followed in 2018 by the controversial elections that brought Imran Khan to power, and so far he is ensconced in the seat (with the help, critics argue, of the military).

This brief and wholly inadequate recounting of the tortured journey and struggle for democracy in Pakistan suggests some underlying features of our history. Constant attempts by the military-bureaucratic oligarchy that the country inherited from colonialism emerged as the single greatest obstacle to the development and consolidation of a genuine democracy. This eventually cost us half the country. The other half, West Pakistan (now the remaining Pakistan), too has had its fair share of conflict over provincial autonomy and a democratic federal structure (to date five nationalist insurgencies in Balochistan, nationalist and democratic ruction in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Imran Khan’s perceived or actual failings notwithstanding, unless the powerful institution of the military (the junior partner in the oligarchy, the bureaucracy no longer being as powerful) steps back from politics and allows the free play of democracy through fair and free elections, freedom of expression, the media and the citizen, the sorry history of democracy’s travails seems destined to repeat itself ad nauseam.

The writer is a veteran journalist who has held senior editorial positions in several newspapers

State of Pakistan's democracy, the past and present