The parliamentary elections in Pakistan — that concluded last summer — saw in their aftermath the formation of the government by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N). It’s a watershed in the history of the turbulent country’s process of democratic renewal. The preceding 66 years have been marked by prolonged spells of martial law and presidential ordinances, punctuated by intermittent and haphazard democratic rule. It was said that in Pakistan, if the person with a gun did not occupy the seat of power, he was standing behind it. Pakistan had come to be identified with dictatorship or at best a guided democracy: a phenomenon in many Asian and African countries. The country seems determined to shed the disparaging label. What potential trajectory does Pakistan’s democracy project have?
There is room for optimism because the transition has not been from an army rule to an elected ruler, but power changing hands from one political party — Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — to that of the PML(N). The formalities of democratic change have made history in Pakistan, and a section of the country’s population brims with expectation for their country’s future and its probable relations with other countries. The terms “Failed State” and the “Most Dangerous Place”, with which Pakistan used to be identified by some earnest observers, seem poised to be readjusted. For, if the people and politicians of a country, together, could display enough maturity to effect a democratic election contiguous with the preceding one, then they could also begin to ponder earnestly over their country’s shortcomings and attempt to rectify them.
It should not be naive to infer that Pakistan would repeat the same parliamentary elections after every five years for their own good and the broader stability of the region. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s democracy is in a nascent stage and vulnerable to pressures and pulls from within. Pakistan has never had and does not have a nationwide parliamentary democratic organization, akin to India’s original Congress party, which could pave the way for a democratic political base, to ensure an enduring democracy. What India began nurturing more than 66 years ago, is now Pakistan’s formidable task. The regressive vehicles of governance of the British era and its attendant legacies are still rooted in Pakistan; notably, an alliance of the elite bureaucracy, army, and some political parties influenced by landlords and some business magnates. It’s a coalition model for a non-democratic dispensation.
For Pakistanis, the process of extricating themselves from this stifling and yet determined social structure will be tortuous and torturous. The political atmosphere is vitiated by vicious squabbling among politicians, continued hostilities with India, and sundry deep-rooted vested interests, which hinder the process of consensus building in Pakistan.
Suppression of democracy began, when, in 1956 Pakistan’s seniormost bureaucrat, Ghulam Mohammad, abrogated the Constitution, grabbed executive power, and relied on the army for government stability. Ultimately, General Ayub Khan declared martial law, and appointed himself Executive President of the country in 1958.
There was a flash of hope when, the mantle of power of a bifurcated Pakistan, rested upon the shoulders of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: a demagogic, brilliant, and an insufferable politician. But, Bhutto was steeped in feudal inheritance and attributes; his utterances on democracy were more of fiction than fact. Pakistan’s new democratic ruler was more capricious and cruel than the erstwhile military dictators. Intolerant of opposition, hungry for untrammelled power, and consumed with a sense of overwhelming pride in himself, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto converted Pakistan to nearly a one-man democracy. His rule determined another army coup in the summer of 1977.
General Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year rule commenced.
In 1988, when General Zia’s regime ended, democracy returned. That political infighting is deep-rooted and by itself defeats the democratic culture, was evident between 1988 and 1999, when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif took turns in acrimoniously ejecting each the other from the prime ministerial chair. It was a period of hope and despair. Expectations that the two main political parties would help strengthen democracy were dashed by the resolve to fight each other to the finish. Corruption, nepotism and administrative high-handedness yet again brought the military brass into the fray with another coup in 1999.
When the coup’s approver, General Pervez Musharraf, ended his rule in 2008, and democratic elections were held, Pakistan dominated global headlines as an epicentre of terrorism, governmental instability, collapse of civil institutions, and intolerant of pluralism. But, at the brink of the abyss, Pakistanis fought back. They took active part in the electoral process. The previous elected government (2008-2013) received significant cooperation from the then-opposition led by Nawaz Sharif, who realized that bringing down the government might again lead to playing into the hands of the military. The two major parties appear to be keen on restraining the army, and Sharif has openly called for a redress of the civil-military imbalance.
But challenges ahead are severe. The pre-election period witnessed massacre of Hazara Shias in Balochistan. Violence against other minorities is a routine affair. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is apparently proceeding cautiously and supposedly engaging in confidence-building measures with the entrenched political power blocs. Pakistan’s army chief General Kayani has gracefully stepped down and has urged his successor to resist the urge to thwart the democratic process in future. But, the Muharram violence in Rawalpindi is a grim reminder of the imperative to flush out extremist propensities from the nation’s body politic.
All of Pakistan’s social ills and their attendant negative impact on its relations with the outside world have risen primarily from an absence of a democratic set up. To stay in power, the military has nurtured extremist groups. Additionally, rampant corruption among the political class has made it easy for fundamentalists and terrorists to enlist new recruits. Too much blood has been shed to no logical end. Parliamentary democracy probably provides the best possible paradigm for differing opinions to be heard and to reach a minimum level of agreement in a society formed of diverse groups. The future is full of opportunities and forebodings. In today’s restive world, especially in a politically tempestuous South Asia, it is for Pakistan’s political leadership to strengthen democracy in its country.
The author analyses International Affairs, World Politics and Global Economic Relations.