Democracy has its own flaws and weaknesses but that it has survived since 2008 is a positive development in the country’s political history
Pakistan is at a crossroads, so is its politics. Since Independence, the ruling elite have restored feudal politics, which they were used to. They have never tried to reform. Instead of abolishing the feudal system, they have strengthened it and crushed all anti-feudal movements.
So, politics more or less revolved around dictatorial and authoritarian mindset with little participation by the ‘middle-class’ or the ‘working class’. Till the late 1970s, it was divided along ideological grounds between right wing and left wing. After the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, religious extremism gripped the region and Pakistan was unable to distance itself from it. Instead, it became a breeding ground for extremist groups. The impact of this development was felt in the country’s politics for decades.
The debacle of East Pakistan could have been averted had Field Marshal Ayub Khan handed over power to the then speaker of the National Assembly rather than Gen Yahya Khan. It could also have been averted had the latter, instead of ordering military action, called the National Assembly session and handed over power to Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman and the Awami League. The rest, as we know, is history.
After a four-year period of democratic rule by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which gave the country a constitution in 1973, democracy was once again rolled back with the imposition of a third martial law within 30 years of Independence. This martial law regime lasted the longest from July 1977 to 1988 and was followed by a period of unstable democracy mainly because of Article 58-2(B), introduced by Gen Zia ul Haq that empowered the president to dismiss the government. From Mohammad Khan Junejo to Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif, governments headed by elected leaders did not last more than three years apiece.
The last military coup on October 12, 1999 was unusual in the sense that the country witnessed changes, some of which were adopted by civilian governments that followed. These included the Police Order 2002, a new local government system, the National Accountability Bureau, the rise of private sector electronic media and the increase (up to 30 percent) in the number of seats reserved for women.
Formally, martial law was not imposed during the nine years (from 1999 to 2007). However, Gen Musharraf never wanted to quit. This could be judged from his emotional last public address. In the end, after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, he was left with no other option.
After Musharraf, democratic rule – or a sense of it – proceeded uninterrupted (from 2008 to 2021). For the first time since its creation, the country witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another in 2013.
Although, many believe the involvement of powerful quarters still dominates politics, major reforms have made the parliament strong, at least on paper. The 18th Amendment is one such example. It is now up to the politicians to reform the system further and to meet the expectations of the people.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, one of the country’s towering political personalities, was a huge loss. It had a huge impact on the PPP’s political standing. Over the last 10 years, the party has failed to make a strong comeback outside Sindh. Now the PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, and former president Asif Ali Zardari are trying to regain some of the lost ground in the Punjab. The party has decided to launch a mass campaign from January 5, on the eve of the birth anniversary of its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Over the last 20 years, particularly after 9/11, the Pashtun belt in particular has witnessed a change in political trends with the rise of a new Pashtun nationalism on one side, with groups like Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), and on the other the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) right-of-centre party led by Imran Khan, who surprised both nationalists and religious parties like Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and Jamaat-i-Islami. Even parties like the Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and the PPP took the backseat. The PTI created history by winning two consecutive elections in 2013 and 2018.
Only recently has the JUI-F surprised Prime Minister Imran Khan and the PTI by winning the first phase of local government elections and triggering a restructuring of Imran Khan’s party.
During the past two decades, political trends reshaped in Pakistan’s largest city, and economic hub, Karachi. The Musharraf era had given the MQM a new life after two back-to-back army and police operations against its militancy from 1992 to 1996, resulting in the death of hundreds of alleged militants.
Musharraf, through his 2001 City Government Ordinance, empowered local governments. As a result, during his rule, the performance of both the mayor and city nazim, JI’s Naimatullah Khan and the-then MQM’s Mustafa Kamal respectively, were highly appreciated.
But like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, political trends in urban Sindh kept changing. The PPP, meanwhile, maintained its strong in rural Sindh. The MQM caused itself serious damage on August 22, 2016, when its founder Altaf Hussain raised anti-Pakistan slogans in a speech. This led to a massive political disaster for the party that now stands divided into four factions.
In the 2018 elections, the MQM was replaced by the PTI, which managed to bag 14 National Assembly seats (after one NA seat in 2013) and 22 Provincial Assembly seats to become the leading party in Karachi. The PTI also created history by becoming the first party that won from Karachi and formed a government at the Centre.
Can PTI retain its position in the forthcoming local government elections in Karachi, and in the next general elections? This will be the real test for federal minister Ali Zaidi, the new PTI Sindh organiser, as well as for the new party secretary general, Asad Umer, who have been tasked with taking measures to build on the party’s 2018 position making use of major development projects.
Rising religious extremism has also made inroads in politics, affecting even mainstream religious parties. One such example is that of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which within a few years, particularly after 2017, emerged as a strong political entity as was evident from the 2018 elections. Although they won only two PA seats from Karachi, the number of votes it secured from the Punjab and Karachi made them the third largest party of the Punjab, and fifth in the country.
It will be interesting to see how many votes they get in the local government polls in the Punjab and Sindh in the coming months. The party has deep roots and at union council level it could disturb both the PTI and PML-N in the Punjab, and the MQM, the JI and the PTI in urban Sindh.
Gen Zia not only left a violent legacy but also divided politics along ethnic, sectarian and caste-based systems.
Despite all odds, starting with the disqualification of three times prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, followed by his conviction as well as that of his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, and filing of money laundering cases against other members of the Sharif family including Shehbaz Sharif, the PML-N surprised many by keeping intact its popular base in the Punjab. Over the last three years they have won 13 by-elections.
Nawaz Sharif still poses the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Establishment. He has certainly reshaped the mindset of the ‘big brother’ (the Punjab) in the federation. This is evident from his popular support despite his anti-establishment posture. Nawaz Sharif has a history of strained relationship with the Establishment despite being accused of being its client.
Much now depends on the outcome of his appeal, which is likely to be decided in a few months if not weeks. If Nawaz and Maryam lose their appeals, resulting in their exit from electoral politics, things will become even more difficult for the PML-N.
Politics in Balochistan has also morphed in the last 20 years, particularly after the assassination of former governor and chief minister, Nawab Akbar Bugti. The institutional politics, by and large, has been controlled by powers that be and the mini-insurgency appears to have died down. The resentment among the people has however survived, something the ruling elite need to understand.
Nawaz Sharif had taken a bold step in making Dr Abdul Malik of the National Party (NP) the chief minister, in a bid to make a positive political move. But the way in which the PML-N-led government was sent packing home before the 2018 elections and a pro-establishment Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) revived the key issues.
The recent protests in Gwadar are an eye opener. While the movement is being led by right wing Jamaat-i-Islami, it retains its nationalist character. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties and nationalist parties should be given more space in the politics in Balochistan.
The rise of Imran Khan and the PTI were perhaps the biggest change in politics in the last two decades. Now, after having ruled the country, can they sustain their political clout based on their performance, which has so far failed to meet the expectations of even their supporters?
Imran Khan was seen as the third alternative by a people weary of poor governance and political rivalries of the mainstream parties, the PML-N and the PPP. While initially, the political challenge posed by the PTI and Imran Khan was not taken seriously by the mainstream political parties, the party’s massive jalsa on October 30, 2011 at Minar-i-Pakistan brought a new class of voters in politics.
But it was only after the 2016 Panama Papers controversy, in which several leaders across the world were forced to resign or were sent packing after revelations of offshore assets, that a his politics got a new of life. Taking advantage of the political mileage, he won the election in 2018.
The continuity of the democratic system has resulted in throwing up alternative political options for voters. Democracy has its flaws and weaknesses but that it has survived since 2008 is a positive development in the country’s political history. Imran Khan came to political relevance, and eventually power, as an alternative to better known political options and powers. Now that he has completed his three years in power, there is little room for more blunders. Else, the people may look for other options or may simply return to the old tried and tested ones.
There remain those who call the current political system a “sham democracy.” It is sad that they were never able to provide an effective alternative. Some have suggested the presidential form of government as an alternative, but it has been tested in the past and has failed. Let the system take roots; allow it to give space and opportunity to other alternatives.
The writer is a journalist and analyst with GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets at @MazharAbbasGEO