Pakistan’s political paralysis

The country’s history is marred by political disharmony

Pakistan’s political paralysis


eventy-five years ago, a country was founded to protect the political, economic, and socio-cultural interests of the Muslims of the sub-continent. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, achieved it through a persistent political and democratic process. He might have wanted to see Pakistan as a constitutional state where no one would be discriminated on the basis of caste, creed or religion. One of the reasons behind the creation of Pakistan was the fear of Hindu domination and persecution of the masses by the elite.

Lawyers, teachers, students, small landowners and peasants sacrificed their lives to fulfil the dream. The Pakistan movement was a feat of collective consciousness of the working class people who wanted an independent state that could uphold fundamental rights, provide respectable livelihoods and guarantee peace and prosperity for future generations. Has this dream been fully realised?

Pakistan’s political journey faced a severe setback with the death of Jinnah in the early days of Pakistan.

The nation had not come out of grief and loss of Jinnah’s passing when in October 1951, another tragedy struck it; the first prime minister of the country was killed in broad daylight at Rawalpindi. The derailment of democracy started with the death of Liaquat Ali Khan. It continues to date. Removal of Khawaja Nazimuddin’s ministry through an order of the governor general reminds us that a stable political government was not a priority. Mohammad Ali Bogra tried hard but like his predecessor failed against the nexus of civil-military bureaucracy. After Bogra, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Ibrahim Ismail Chundrigar, and Feroz Khan Noon proved chessboard pawns.

Martial law was imposed in 1958. It gave the establishment direct control of the country’s resources. Ayub Khan, and later his successor Yahya Khan, ran Pakistan like their personal fiefs. Ayub’s licence regime and Yahya’s patronage politics crippled Pakistan’s political institutions. Serious political conflict erupted between the East and West wings of Pakistan when the elite of West Pakistan refused to accept the democratic majority of the East. As the political institutions lost credibility, people took to the streets and tried to resolve the matters in their various ways. This led to a military operation in East Pakistan and disintegration of the country.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first elected prime minister, picked up the pieces and started efforts to rebuild Pakistan. He gave the country a democratic constitution. His land reforms were welcomed by the peasantry. He also laid the foundation of an independent foreign policy and built strong relations with the Gulf countries.

However, his treatment of nationalist parties in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was deplorable. His government set a bad precedent in violating fundamental human rights, and curbed press freedom. The anti-Bhutto movement resulted in another martial law.

Zia ul Haq’s martial law banned all political parties in Pakistan. He abrogated the constitution, and imprisoned politicians, rights activists, lawyers, journalists, civil society members and random citizens.

Zia ruled over Pakistan for about eleven years, exercising near absolute power, showing contempt for the constitution and disdain for democracy. His legacy has been religious extremism, polarisation of the society, drugs and the Kalashnikov culture.

The country needs a stable political environment. This will be achieved by making the political institutions more inclusive and open for all communities.

Democracy returned in 1988 with the election of first female prime minister of the Muslim World, Benazir Bhutto. But the prime minister, her cabinet and the parliament were vulnerable as a powerful president exercised arbitrary powers. Disagreements with the president became the reason for Miss Bhutto and later, Nawaz Sharif’s departure from the prime minister’s office. For almost a decade, prime-ministership was rotated between the two leaders. This era ended with another coup - by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf began with a vision of an enlightened and progressive Pakistan but ended up like other military rulers. He led Pakistan into the War Against Terrorism that cost around $123 billion in collateral damage and a loss of almost 75,000 lives. His Balochistan operation created a deep divide in the province.

In his last years, Musharraf lost control over power, announced general elections and allowed former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return.

From 2008 to 2013 democratic governments fought deadly terrorism, ethnic violence, and sectarian conflicts. The first democratic transition occurred in 2013. The new government of Nawaz Sharif faced constant opposition from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Pressure groups like the Tehreek-i-Labbaik and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) were used to undermine and challenge the rule and the legitimacy of the PML-N government. In the end, the apex court disqualified the prime minister on corruption charges. In the 2018 general elections, the PTI won a majority. The opposition cried foul and blamed the establishment for the results. The establishment finally sent Khan packing through a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly.

This sordid saga of Pakistan’s political paralysis is multifaceted. The massive involvement of the establishment in politics has crippled political institutions. Rigging of the political process and repression of genuine political voices has created a political vacuum. The political institutions have become so weak that they are easily manipulated. This causes apathy and distrust in the system. Those who have power and connections get their way without following due process.

Infighting amongst political parties is another important factor in Pakistan’s political paralysis. It started with the war between the PPP and the Awami League and its current manifestation can be seen in the PML-N and the PTI rivalry.

Another thing that renders political parties weak is the absence of democratic processes within the parties. Regular intra-party elections are not allowed and most parties operate like personal or family enterprises.

In developed democracies, political parties play a crucial role in safeguarding the constitution and the democracy. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, political parties could not become genuine institutions and remained family enterprises. Dynastic politics kill the spirit of democracy and constitutionalism. This is why when dictators strike against political leaders the masses do not resist. They feel marginal to the system and are not ready to take to the streets to protect.

Recently, the removal of Imran Khan from office triggered large protest demonstrations in the urban areas of Pakistan. It is yet to be seen if the PTI can translate this popularity into a sustained political movement.

The religion-politics mix is another factor causing confusion about the concept of democracy, constitution and the parliament. Mainstreaming of religiopolitical parties has divided the masses and hindered the progress of democracy. The recent rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and their grassroots support are a wake-up call for mainstream political parties, policymakers and state institutions.

This depletion of democratic processes in Pakistan has many impacts. Politics and economy are intertwined. The former influences the latter and vice versa. Pakistan’s perennial political turmoil creates uncertainty in the society and abates economic growth.

Pakistan is also facing international isolation. Imran Khan’s presence in the wrong country at the wrong time has left the wrong impression. Further, his rhetoric of a “foreign hand” in his removal from office has alienated the US. Unconditional support for the Afghan Taliban might be a risky policy option for the country.

To address all these issues, the country needs a stable political environment. This can be achieved by making the political institutions more inclusive and open. Continuity of democracy is indispensable if Pakistan wants to move forward. The prime minister should be accountable to the parliament. The judiciary should dispense justice and interpret the constitution rather than repair or reform it. The responsibility for law making lies with the parliament. Sending elected prime ministers to gallows or jails will only bring further political paralysis and a bad name to the establishment. The economy can only be saved by ensuring true representation of the people. Economic stability requires political harmony, and that has been desperately missing in our 75-year story.

Nadeem Hussain is an economic and education policy researcher and strategist. He is co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Agents of Change (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Imtiaz Ali teaches International Relations at the University of Karachi

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Pakistan’s political paralysis