Turbulent politics

Pakistan’s political history has been replete with power struggles and political unrest

Turbulent politics


akistan’s 75-year long political history has been marred by turbulence caused by internal and external disturbances that have led to disruptions in the democratic process. These have included coups by four military rulers, assassinations of a sitting prime minister and a former two-time prime minister, the hanging of an overthrown prime minister following a murder trial, and the disqualification of two prime ministers by the Supreme Court. Still, democracy is far from having been discarded and the struggle to improve and strengthen democratic institutions continues.

The continuous tug of war between political parties and the establishment for hegemony over the country has not only harmed the political institutions but also created a political vacuum. The vacuum has been exploited by non-democratic forces that have always ended up embarrassing their supporters and promoters in various state institutions.

Turbulent politics

Among other things, the political instability delayed the adoption of a consensus constitution until 1973. It took Pakistan nine years, four governor generals – Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Khwaja Nazimuddin, Ghulam Muhammad and Iskandar Mirza, four prime ministers – Liaquat Ali Khan, Khwaja Nazimuddin, Muhammad Ali Bogra and Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, and two constituent assemblies to produce the first constitution in 1956. The constitution was rejected by Awami League, the largest political party as well as some minority groups.

Gen Ayub Khan took over the reins from President Iskandar Mirza and abrogated the constitution. In 1962, he enacted another constitution through an executive order. The third constituent assembly enacted the 1973 constitution with a broad-based consensus. However, it was suspended twice by military rulers, Gen Zia in 1977-1985 and Gen Musharraf in 1999-2002 and restored only after amending it through executive orders followed by legislation to empower themselves.

Turbulent politics

According to several historians and analysts, the battle for administrative power in Pakistan started after Gen Douglas Gracey, the then commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army defied Governor General Jinnah’s orders for sending troops to Kashmir in February 1948. Political analysts say this refusal laid the foundation for future defiance of orders from political leaders.

Lt Gen KM Arif, has included a letter from Gen Gracey in his book Estranged Neighbours, that says that there were several reasons he had to defy the governor general’s orders. He says the next day he had briefed Mr Jinnah and that the latter had bought his justification.

This power game also involved the superior judiciary in political affairs in 1954 when the then chief justice of Pakistan, introduced the Doctrine of Necessity to endorse the dissolution of Pakistan’s first constituent assembly in October 1954 by the then governor general.

Political parties and their leaders have gained and lost popular support over the decades. What has remained constant, however, has been a difficult civil-military relationship and corruption. An interesting fact about Pakistan’s political system is that none of its elected prime ministers has been able to complete the mandated five-year tenure. Since 1947, Pakistan has had 31 prime ministers including Shahbaz Sharif, the current incumbent. Out of these seven were caretaker prime ministers, who assumed the office three months each to supervise general elections. On 18 occasions, prime ministers have been ousted on corruption charges or through military coups. Imran Khan is the only prime minister so far to have lost a vote of confidence.

Turbulent politics

Nawaz Sharif is the only prime minister to have been elected to the office thrice. He could not complete his term even once. He was first removed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1992 using his constitutional power to dissolve the National Assembly. His government was restored by the Supreme Court of Pakistan but he could not function and he was asked by powerful quarters to resign. In October 1999, he was ousted in a coup led by Gen Pervez Musharraf. He became prime minister for the third time in 2013 but was removed from office in 2016 after a court declared him ineligible for public office. Nawaz Sharif is the only former prime minister in Pakistan to have been convicted in two cases. He was first convicted in a hijacking case in 2000 and in an illicit assets case in 2019. After serving a part of his prison term he went to UK where he has lived since then.

Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister was assassinated in a public rally in Rawalpindi on October 16, 1951.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the 9th prime minister and founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party was overthrown, jailed and executed by Gen Zia ul Haq. He was convicted in a murder case and executed. His execution has been described by most analysts as a ‘judicial murder.’

Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister in an Islamic country, who survived a no-confidence motion during her first term, was ousted by President Ghulam Ishaq and accused of corruption.

She was re-elected in 1993 but again deposed by the president (Farooq Leghari). She went into self-imposed exile in 1998 and returned to the country in 2007. She was assassinated at a political rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007.

Turbulent politics

Yousaf Raza Gilani, elected prime minister in 2008, was disqualified in 2012 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan over a contempt of court charge.

The current prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, is also facing corruption charges. A trial is currently under way. The political instability is peaking as political parties and powerful state institutions are locked in a fierce struggle. What Pakistan needs is a new social and political contract, one agreed to in the parliament, in line with the constitution.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Turbulent politics