On the 25th of July, millions of Pakistanis will brave the hot, humid July weather, perennial fears of security and their own apprehensions of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy to head to the polls and to elect Pakistan’s new government. The day is in fact a historic moment because this will only be the second time Pakistan will witness a successful democratic transition in its turbulent seventy year history. It is thus pertinent to chronicle the historical events that brought Pakistan’s democratic journey to the groundbreaking moment of today.
1947-1958: An incipient democracy struggles to assert itself as the specter of dictatorship looms
The first decade after Pakistan’s independence was marked by a struggling democracy trying to impose itself on Pakistan’s landscape. This first decade in fact laid the groundwork for the civil-military imbalance that would come to define Pakistan in the coming years.
Pakistan’s beginnings were marked by contrasting fortunes of the military and the civilian government. Pakistan’s founders harboured genuine existential fears of India threatening action against Pakistan, and this fear led to Pakistan diverting scarce resources to the military. This Indian threat also led to Pakistan seeking a patron on the international level that would guarantee Pakistan’s security. This line of thinking led Pakistan to entrench itself firmly in the Cold War camp on the hopes that America would protect Pakistan’s territorial integrity. America, for its part, poured millions in the Pakistani army in a bid to make it a bulwark against possible Soviet aggression in Asia.
The patronage the military enjoyed from the Pakistani state and from America led to the military modernising on a far more rapid scale than Pakistan’s civilian establishment. The latter, in fact, suffered from political squabbling and chose to adopt a centralised approach instead of decentralising power to the provinces. This decision once again stemmed from our leaders’ fears that enemy forces might exploit fissures in Pakistan’s cultural and national make up, which could lead to Pakistan breaking up.
The diverging paths of the military and the civilian government eventually pitted the two forces in a conflict that was only ever likely to have one winner. Pakistan’s first experiment with democracy thus came to an ignominious end on 7th October 1958, when the then President Iskander Mirza abrogated the constitution and declared martial law in Pakistan.
1958-1971: The years of development, conflict and direct military rule
Student protests against Ayub Khan’s rule in 1968
Iskander Mirza’s control of the state would turn out to be short-lived as well. The army chief Ayub Khan took power in his own hands and sent Mirza on a ‘vacation’ without a return ticket. Ayub then installed himself as Pakistan’s president and presided over a decade that has been defined as a turning point in Pakistan’s economic trajectory, but which also witnessed Pakistan fighting a war with India in 1965. The economic policies Ayub promulgated were also in large part responsible for East Pakistan breaking apart from Pakistan.
Ayub was candid about his disdain for parliamentary democracy from the beginning. Trained at Sandhurst and highly Western-oriented, Ayub took pride in Pakistan being the United States’s ‘most-allied ally’, and installed a political system that strongly mirrored America’s presidential form of democracy.
Ayub’s 1962 constitution–which interestingly did not initially include the ‘Islamic Republic’ in its title, envisioned an electoral college of 80,000 people who would elect the President. The Basic Democracies system was in fact a multi-layered, and complex system that meant that Pakistan’s president–who inevitably was to be Ayub Khan– would be indirectly elected. This system of indirect elections was moreover born out of Ayub’s belief that the Pakistani ‘mentality’ was not suitable for Parliamentary democracy.
Ayub’s economic policies also made him stand out from his predecessors and from those who would succeed him as Pakistan’s leaders. Ayub harbingered the green revolution in Pakistan and also set Pakistan on the path of unprecedented industrial development. This growth, however, had a tremendous cost since it gave birth to regional inequalities. Pakistan’s famed economist, Mehboob-ul-Haq, for instance, dubbed Ayub’s economic policies ‘the Doctrine of Functional Inequality’ and highlighted the stark inequality that had emerged in Pakistan in the 1960s.
This inequality, coupled with Ayub’s stifling of democracy eventually gave birth to the social unrest that forced Ayub to resign in 1969. The former army chief, however, chose not to hold elections and instead passed on the baton to the then army chief, Yahya Khan.
Yahya continues to remain an enigma in Pakistan’s history. Although Yahya was the first leader to hold direct elections in Pakistan on the basis of ‘one person, one vote’, his role in the subsequent political crisis highlights his inherent bias and disdain for sharing power with East Pakistan.
It remains a poorly kept secret of Pakistan’s history that the 1971 tragedy was down largely to West Pakistan’s economic and political isolation of East Pakistan, and owed little to India’s pernicious role. India did indeed exploit nationalist sentiment in what is now Bangladesh, but the grounds for division were laid when West Pakistan ignored economic development in East Pakistan, and when Bengalis increasingly found themselves shut off from military, bureaucratic and political positions in the country.
1971-1988: The years of self-avowed ‘socialism’ and military rule
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addressing a public rally
The division of Pakistan meant Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) found themselves governing the country. This was perhaps the best time for civilian politicians to assert themselves over the military since the latter found itself humiliated and short of pride after the 1971 incident.
However, as has become commonplace for our politicians, Bhutto resorted to authoritarian rule that isolated his party cadre, and stifled opposition in the country. Although Bhutto had soared to popularity on his socialist mandate of ‘roti, kapra, makaan’, and he did nationalise many industries in the country, his failure to implement his land reforms and his action against prominent trade unions highlight a sharp dichotomy and dissonance in his ideology.
Bhutto’s taste for authoritarianism was only compounded by an economic crises that gripped Pakistan. The floods in 1973-74 and the OPEC oil crisis that triggered a global recession all contributed to decreasing Bhutto’s popularity in the country. It thus only seemed inevitable that the military would re-assert itself, and the straw that broke the camel’s back was the claim that Bhutto rigged the 1977 elections. As opposition to Bhutto mounted, General Zia ul Haq led ‘Operation Fairplay’ on the 5th of July, 1977, and ended Bhutto’s rule.
Zia-ul-Haq’s oppressive rule continues to haunt Pakistan’s political and social fabric. Zia abrogated the 1973 constitution, and added the infamous Eighth amendment that would haunt Pakistan’s democracy for the next twenty years. Zia’s rule also blended a myopic view of Islam with authoritarian rule, that gave birth to many radical movements that plague Pakistan today.
Zia ul Haq administering the oath of office of the Chairman of Federal Shariat Court to Mr. Justice (Retd) Sallahuddin Ahmed
Zia also took the momentous decision place Pakistan at the vanguard of America’s war against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. CIA and Pakistani funded ‘mujahideen’ took on Soviet forces in an operation that radicalised Pakistani society, and gave birth to the present blend of conservatism that has gripped Pakistan.
Zia’s tenure was another significant setback to the democratic project in Pakistan since his constitutional amendments and use of Islam as a political gimmick was to shape Pakistan’s political landscape for decades to come. It was only his death in a mysterious plane crash on the 17th of August 1988 that ushered in a new, albeit significantly curtailed period of democracy in Pakistan.
1988-1999: Controlled democracy and the decade of presidential high-handedness
Benazir Bhutto’s oath taking ceremony in 1988
Pakistan’s 1990s oscillated between rule by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The ‘Daughter of the East’, Benazir made a remarkable return from obscurity in 1988 when her PPP surged to power in that year’s elections. However, General Zia’s legacy continued to stifle democracy in Pakistan, with Benazir coming in direct conflict with the now far more powerful position of President, and the army. Indeed, it was the eighth amendment that paved the way for President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s dismissal of Benazir’s government in 1990.
The 1990 elections saw Nawaz Sharif’s Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) come to power, but his tenure too was marked by conflict with the military and the President. Nawaz made the wise decision to keep Pakistan out of the First Gulf War, and laid the grounds for what would become Nawaz’s brainchild–the motorways in his tenure, but his time in office too was cut short when the military forced both him and Ghulam Khan to resign in 1993 after Nawaz and Khan could not agree on key policy measures.
1993 and 1996 were the next election cycles which saw Benazir emerge victorious in the former, with Nawaz coming to power again in 1996. It was his heavy mandate in 1996 that allowed Nawaz to pass the Thirteenth amendment that limited the President’s powers and finally gave breathing space to civilian rule. Nawaz, however, triggered inter-institutional conflict when his supporters first led a raid on the Supreme Court in 1997 and later when he tried to remove army chief Pervez Musharraf. The latter action, sadly, proved to be too much for the army to digest, with the military triggering a military coup, and once again pushing Pakistan into the grips of military rule.
1999-2008: ‘Enlightened Moderation’ and a period of seismic changes
Pervez Musharraf’s rule was another defining period in Pakistan’s history. These nine years once again witnessed near unprecedented economic growth–much of it owing to economic rewards from Pakistan’s participation in the War on Terror–to the impact the WoT had on Pakistan’s security and peace.
It was also under Musharraf’s rule that digital media gained immense traction and growth, a phenomenon that would ironically lead to his downfall. Musharraf also promulgated the 17th amendment that undid a lot of the democratic gains Pakistan achieved in the thirteenth amendment.
Lawyers take to the streets in 2007 to protest against Pervez Musharraf
Pakistan’s exposure to democracy and to globalisation through a vibrant digital media, and the societal changes that emerged out of a rising middle class, however, eventually proved too much for Musharraf’s stranglehold on the political landscape, and led to the lawyer’s movement and the opposition to the emergency of 3rd November, 2007 which culminated in Musharraf giving up power. The rise of a religious middle class also served as the impetus behind Nawaz Sharif’s return, and it was his presence and the return of Benazir Bhutto that toppled Pakistan’s third military regime.
2008-Present: Democracy gaining a foothold in the country?
Imran Khan holding a massive jalsa in Lahore
2018 will mark a decade since Pakistan has had uninterrupted democratic rule. This period has seen tremendous democratic gains such as the passing of the 18th amendment, the passage of the seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) award, and more recently, the Thirty First Amendment Bill that paves the way for FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This decade, however, has not been bereft of civil-military conflict. In fact, events such as the Dawn Leaks, the multiple military operations during the PPP and the incumbent government’s tenures, the 2011 American operation against Osama Bin Laden and the Memogate Scandal that emerged in the aftermath of this operation all damaged the already precarious civil-military paradigm, and led to calls that the country might return to direct military rule.
With the end of the incumbent Parliament’s tenure on the 31st of May, however, it seems that democracy is finally entrenching itself in Pakistan. All parties seem united on holding elections on the 25th of July, and other state institutions such as the judiciary too seem to be on board with this idea.
As we cast our votes, however, it is important to realise the significance of this moment and the history that bears down on us as we head to the polls. We must also be cognisant of the fact that it is only through democracy that Pakistan can truly set itself on the path to prosperity.