Why democracy is weak in Pakistan

Why democracy is weak in Pakistan

By Babar Ayaz

Unfortunately, in Pakistan within days of an elected government’s swearing in, people start to ask: How many days will you give to this government? The charitable question would be: Will this government complete its five-year term?

Such doubts are not misplaced. The people of Pakistan have lived through unstable political times since the country was born. This brings us to an essential question: why is democracy so weak in Pakistan? Within 15 months of its swearing in Nawaz government is struggling to manage the on-going civil military tension backed by Imran Khan’s movement against the government and a parallel call for a revolution by Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri. This makes this question more relevant and urgent.

Let’s briefly review a number of factors that set the political, social and economic course of a country. To begin with, the Two-Nation Theory that evolved in the early 20th century was a weak argument. But we have to understand that the Muslims, despite being a small minority of India, ruled most of the Subcontinent for 650 years and did not claim that they were a separate nation. Why, then, was their (Indian Muslims) amnesia cured and they started believing that they were a separate nation?

The major reason was that, as the British moved towards self-rule in the early 20th century, which was based on democratic principles, the Muslims, being a minority, began to fear ‘Hindu majoritarian rule’. Basic demands during the Pakistan movement were secular in nature – demands for a higher share in jobs and assemblies in Muslim minority provinces and more autonomy for Muslim majority areas. These demands evolved and expanded in the claim for a homeland for the ‘Muslim nation.’ The Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, was not willing to budge and wanted a strong central government on the strength of their brute majority. Thus the insecure Muslim minority was not sure that the democratic system, though it claimed to be secular, would protect their interests.

Next, Pakistan’s establishment ran away from democracy in 1970-71when the Awami League in East Pakistan, which represented 56 percent of population of the country, was able to rule in association with NWFP (KP), Balochistan and perhaps Sindh. It did not accept that the Awami League in East Pakistan, with the support of smaller provinces in the west, has the right to have a constitution leading to maximum autonomy for the provinces,

Democracy was born weak in Pakistan. Though both India and Pakistan came into being envisaging a parliamentary system, Mr. Jinnah decided to be the governor general of the newborn country instead of prime minister. This was to control the government, as had the power to dissolve it.

Democracy is also supposed to provide equal provincial autonomy to the provinces in a multi-ethnic federation. But a strong desire for domination by the centre created distrust between the federation and the provinces from the beginning. Within eight days of Independence, Dr Khan Sahib’s majority government in NWFP was dismissed by the centre on August 22, 1947 under section 51(5), which gave powers to the governor general to keep the provinces under his control. In Sindh, Muhammad Ayub Khuro’s government was dismissed on April 26 1948 because he protested against depriving Sindh of its port city Karachi and the influx of refugees in the province – which is a contentious issue even today

In 1948, the people of East Bengal were told by Khawaja Nazimuddin that the national language of the state would be Urdu and they could choose the provincial language. This was rejected by Bengalis, in spite of Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan’s intervention, and many people were killed in Dhaka in the language movement in 1952.

All such measures taken by the leaders who played a significant role in the making of Pakistan clearly portrayed their undemocratic mindset. As a result, we have had seven governments in the first 11 years – this included the assassination of the first prime minister, the dismissal of governments by the governor generals, and forced resignations.

The assassination of Liaquat and the dismissal of his successor Nazimuddin are also linked by some to their refusal to join the regional military alliance under the US.

In the 66 years of its history, Pakistan has been ruled directly by three military governments for 33 years – half of its life. I am not counting the fake democracies established by General Zia in 1985 and General Musharraf in 2002, because they remain on record as ‘the Zia government’ and ‘the Musharraf government’.

If we analyse this situation, we can see that for 33 years we had military governments, and for about two year there were several interim governments. In the remaining 31 years, we have had 13 political governments, of which only the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zardari governments ruled for five years each. Now that means 11 political governments did not survive an average of even two full years. How on earth can democratic dispensations perform in such unstable conditions?

(To be continued) Writer is author of What’s Wrong with Pakistan? He can be reached at ayazbabar@gmail.com


Part II

Why democratic space lost by politicians?

The question is: why has the military ruled Pakistan directly for 33 years, and even when we have an elected government, why is the ‘invisible government’ is the real master? In the Legatum Prosperity Index, only the military in Pakistan scored as ‘good’, while all other civilian related factors scored either average or poor.

Thus the chronic struggle between the country’s military and civilian governments is basically a conflict between highly developed modern institutions – civil, military and judiciary – and quasi-feudal political forces. Pakistan’s political parties growth has been retarded because of long spells of military rule, the dismissal of elected governments before they completed their term, and lack of democratic culture. All the major parties do not hold fair elections within their parties, so the leadership revolves around a personality or a family. PTI and JI hold elections, but the former also lives on the cult of Imran Khan’s personality. Even the parties which are led by the urban elite or the middle class have a feudal mindset and so ultimately it is one-person rule.

The political parties’ biggest folly is that their provincial and federal leaders are not willing to share power with the local governments. Hence they are not holding local bodies’ elections, and Pakistani democracy is suspended in the air without a sound local government foundation.

Politicians are financed and black mailed by the ‘Invisible government’ to tow the pro-establishment line, aided by many in the media. There are a lot of politicians who believe that to come to power, they should have military support. This leverage is fully exploited by the top agencies to keep the elected government on a tight leash.

One key factor in favour of democracy in Pakistan is the people’s belief in it. In the May 2013 elections, 56 per cent of votes were cast. If we take the average turnout of the last seven elections, over 43 per cent, it shows people’s real interest in democracy and political parties. In spite of these parties’ weaknesses, people prefer to support democracy as it gives them access to the sources of power.

Sixty per cent of Pakistanis live in rural areas and vote mostly for quasi-feudal representatives because they have access to them. But the influence of the feudal class is declining as they cannot take their constituency voters for granted unless they are helpful when needed. Contrary to text book knowledge, the landed classes support the democratic system because it gives them a share in power.

Pakistan’s middle classes and big business are now leading the political narrative – three chief ministers are from the middle class and one is from an industrial family. Similarly, ministers heading important ministries are from this class, and the number of middle class representatives in the assemblies is increasing in every election.

Over this period, major parties have matured and are not willing to derail the democratic system by playing into the hands of the establishment. By and large, the media supports democracy and is against derailing the democratic process, barring a few agents of the establishment.

Another factor which shows that, given a full term, parliament can perform was evident as major legislative work was done by the PPP government – the18th Amendment changed 101 articles and clauses of the constitution. A big leap forward towards provincial autonomy was taken in the 18th Amendment and the 7th National Financial Commission (NFC) Award – something that has remained a disputed issue in the history of Pakistan.

PPP, with the consensus of other parties, removed Article 58 (2) (b), which had been inserted by General Zia and gave the president power to remove an elected government and dissolve parliament. Zia had followed in the footsteps of the founders of the country where the governor generals exercised this power at their whim and dismissed six governments.

Now we come to the question of why the military establishment is the most organised and wealthy political party in Pakistan. Reason: Pakistan was born with the feeling of insecurity. Because its existence was based on a less imagined rationale — claim that the Muslims of India were a separate nation. Add to that the opposition of the Indian Congress Party to the creation of Pakistan. The loss of Kashmir to India and the military stand-off soon after that created India paranoia in Pakistan; hence the urge to build a strong military and alliances with the US. Right from Jinnah downward, Pakistan has sold its geo-strategic position to the US and other Western nations. This resulted in the creation of a security state with revanchist designs. Consequently, the military not only has a domineering security role; it also dictates important foreign policy decisions.

The national security and foreign policy of Pakistan has failed so far. The country is facing serious consequences at home, and is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world. It is thus evident that a paradigm shift is required to redeem Pakistan, and that is only possible if it can build a peaceful co-existence with India and Afghanistan. This would consequently weaken the military’s control on politics, and strengthen democracy.

In view of on-going tension between Pakistan’s civilian government and military establishment, the following probable political scenarios are emerging:

Most probable scenario: Nawaz Sharif’s government is tamed to abide by the dictates of the Establishment and is allowed to complete its term.

Second probable scenario: Nawaz mishandles Imran Khan’s march to Islamabad, the so-called revolution of Tahir Qadri, and remains adamant that Musharraf cannot be released; this could result in the army pushing him to hold mid-term elections.

Least probable scenario: an army takeover. At present, it is not in the military’s self-interest to take over because of internal security threats and increasing regional political pressures.


Writer is author of What’s Wrong with Pakistan? He can be reached at ayazbabar@gmail.com



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  1. #1 by Iqbal Alavi on September 3, 2014 - 8:03 pm

    Have read the article. It is, as ever, nicely penned. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPad


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