November Issue 2014

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 10 years ago

Having struggled with constitutions, governments and the structure of the state, Pakistan throughout its history — from its inception in 1947 to 2014 — has oscillated like a pendulum, between the poles of democracy and dictatorship.

Although its founders intended it to be a democratic state, the political evolution of Pakistan has taken a complex and multifaceted path. Having experienced repeated coup d’états and political instability, the efforts to establish democratic systems in Pakistan have been short-lived, and never really operational and functional enough to test their stability. These democratic experiments were replaced by authoritarian regimes, usually dominated by the military, that were invariably identified as a ‘transitional stage’ to a reformed and revised democratic system.

The political trajectory of Pakistan gives an impression of a rhythmic succession of cycles of about 10 years in the course of which democratic phases and military governments alternate — e.g., Gen. Ayub Khan in the 1960s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the ’70s, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in the ’80s, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in the ’90s and Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s. Many scholars have, over these decades, put forth their views on this issue. Safdar Mahmood, a historian and leading political analyst, in his book Pakistan: Political Roots & Development 1947-1999, wrote that looking at its political balance sheet from 1947 to 1997, it becomes clear that “democracy in the real sense of the word has never been introduced or practiced in Pakistan” because for most of this period, “the country has been under ‘bureaucratic-cum-parliamentary’ rule or under a military rule” and thus the “democratic institutions were never allowed to grow freely.” Such views are shared by many writers of the political history of Pakistan, both Pakistanis and westerners alike.

Over the decades, this political trajectory reveals that Pakistan’s governing structure has faced a host of difficulties which did not let democratic principles, institutions and processes develop firm roots in the polity. Pakistan’s political history, thus, seems to be marked with “unnecessary delay in constitution-making, breakdowns of constitutional order, political instability, military rule, and extra-parliamentary pressure and agitation for political change.”  Consequently, many have called it a ‘failed state.’

In 2008, Asif Ali Zardari was elected as the new president and completed his term successfully in 2013, making his administration the first democratically-elected government to complete a full five-year term. Despite many hurdles, and charges of corruption and incompetence, it was indeed a landmark achievement for a civilian government in Pakistan. Professor Ian Talbot wrote in Pakistan: A New History, that the post-2008 period in Pakistan, i.e. the Zardari era (2008-13), came about through the “fairest [elections] since those of 1971” and had much in common with those of the 1990s as far as issues and problems faced by Pakistan were concerned. But the challenges of “democratic consolidation” were different and more “acute” than in the 1990s.

On June 5, 2013 Nawaz Sharif assumed the powers of prime minister, and thus Pakistan has headed back toward a major ‘transition’ from the existing quasi-presidential system to parliamentary democratic rule — the fifth democratic era in its history.

Will Nawaz Sharif be able to complete his tenure successfully? Will he be able to bring ‘democratic stability’ to Pakistan? Will his government be able to cope with all the challenges? These questions are critical given the government’s strained relations with the military establishment. The future of democracy in Pakistan has always remained an open question.

But a recent report — which was based on a countrywide opinion poll commissioned by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and conducted by Gallup Pakistan — to solicit views on ‘The State of Democracy in South Asia: 2013 (Pakistan Report),’ revealed that over half of the people in Pakistan are satisfied with the functioning of democracy in the country; that freedom of expression, legislation and the understanding level of people had improved; and that people’s trust in democracy would further increase if the process was not derailed.

On the basis of this report, Ijaz Shafi Gilani, a prominent social scientist and the founder/chairman of Gallup Pakistan, said democracy had a bright future in Pakistan, keeping in view the majority of the single-religion population, while Professor Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political scientist and military/defence analyst, emphasised that democracy was a lengthy process and would only bear fruit after “four to five consecutive elections.” For him, military interventions had not given political parties a chance to strengthen democracy.

In 2012, Professor Rizvi had pointed out that Pakistan faces major challenges on the way to achieving the ideals or “high standards” of “constitutional liberalism, equal citizenship, civil and political rights on a non-discriminatory basis, and the rule of law.” The first challenge to the future of democracy comes from the people and groups who want to use democratic procedures and elections as a means to implement their peculiar political ideas or a hard-line puritanical Islamic order; the non-elected state institutions like the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary; unrestrained competition among the political players; religious extremism and terrorism that causes the break-up of society; and poor governance by the federal and provincial governments. Rizvi proposed that the Pakistan government needs to adopt “policy-measures to reduce socio-economic pressures on the common people and assure them security of their life and property.”

Similarly, in 2005, Stephen Cohen proposed that to have a real democracy Pakistan must also have real political parties. “Civilian leaders will be required to display a level of tact and competence” and the civil-military relationship must be rebalanced by a “gradual, staged retreat from politics by the army.”

In April, Professor Tahir Amin, chairman of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, said he believes that “democracy is not only a lengthy process, but a slow and gradual one” and that he is hopeful that “after holding three to four consecutive elections, Pakistan will make a successful transition to a ‘stable’ democracy.” He believes that the viability of democracy in Pakistan depends on both internal and external factors, and the intervention of the army, which has in the post-Musharraf era “stepped back” to a great extent, is also crucial in having an “effective democracy” in Pakistan.

Recently, General Mirza Aslam Beg talked about his hope for democracy in Pakistan. For him, although democracy has had a “rough ride” in Pakistan, the essentials strengthening democracy in Pakistan (including democratic ethos, the agents of change and end of dynastic politics) are clearly discernible on the national horizon. Beg further added that Pakistanis desire a change from traditional politics, and demand a “just and equitable social order,” which will hopefully be delivered by the new political leadership. He hopes to see a more stable democracy in Pakistan in the coming years. Similarly, Dr Niaz Murtaza, a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley, while blending popular desires with academic definitions, maintains that “genuine democracy is when elections are regular and credible; corruption is low; government services are high-quality; people feel secure and rights are respected.” For him, Pakistan needs a “series of social movements to help improve its democracy.”

Moreover, the future of democracy in Pakistan, as pointed out by Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army who has served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board, will largely depend on “how political parties evolve and politicians conduct themselves in the coming years.” For him, a major factor that “strengthens democracy and normalises civil-military relations is the quality of governance,” which is being “seriously neglected” in Pakistan, both at the provincial and federal level. Masood argues that Pakistan has been able to keep the process of electoral democracy going, but to keep moving forward, political parties will have to considerably improve their “economic, political and security governance.”

Given the various internal and external challenges the country faces, democracy will be a slow and gradual process.  It needs tolerance, patience and democratic institutions, and it will only reach a level of stability after several consecutive election cycles. The second consecutive democratic regime in the post-Musharraf era is already in progress, and Pakistan can hope to be on the path of a successful and stable democracy in the next 10 to 15 years.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.