Pakistan’s democratic canvas: Patterns of struggle and hope

Pakistan’s history has been characterised by political plurality and rapid transformations, shaped by military governments. Following independence, military governments imposed their own forms of government, making it difficult for the nation to develop strong political leadership. In 1960, General Ayub Khan established a rudimentary democracy, nonetheless, his heirs prioritised religious conservatism and feudalism. The Cold War, East Pakistan’s division, and quick coups all had an additional effect on the democratisation process. The nation’s short-lived shift to democracy was hampered by uneven industrialization, a dearth of middle class, and military backing for the feudal system.

Following its 1947 independence from British colonial authority, Pakistan is hampered in its efforts to democratise by a powerful military aristocracy. The military established a hierarchy and a governing class as a result of the division and lack of political consciousness, which increased the military’s authority. The emergence of military class bourgeoisies, typified by this military oligarchy, has posed obstacles to the democratic process. In addition, the military assisted the landed or feudal elite by giving retiring generals land and profitable contracts. Additionally, the military controlled large companies, which gave retiring generals political clout. Pakistan has been pushed towards elite industrial class, bureaucracy, and feudalism by this military oligarchy, which has stopped the country’s true democratisation process.

Different and unfavourable conditions have typified Pakistan’s democratic state, with legislatives unable to construct a unified constitutional framework and political institutions remaining nonfunctional. The 1973 constitution is the most distorted of the several revisions to the nation’s constitution. Election turnout has decreased as a result of the nation’s ongoing political instability brought on by the president’s repeated abuse of power. The vast majority of legislators, who

come from wealthy feudal families, have had difficulty realising their responsibility and crafting legislation that will effectively institutionalise democracy.

According to modernization theory, a number of factors, including urbanisation, increased life expectancy, occupation specialisation, growing educational attainment, and fast economic growth, are necessary for the shift from traditional to democratic societies. Due to the self-reinforcing nature of these elements, social life and political institutions undergo a transformation that increases the likelihood of democratic political institutions forming and increases popular engagement in the process of democratisation. With actual GDP growth of 0.3% in 2023, Pakistan’s economy grew at an average pace of 4.0% between 2021 and 2023, below the average growth rate of 4.3% for the Asia-Pacific region. The modernization theory emphasises how important it is to fortify civil society’s supporting structures and institutionalise democracy.

People in Pakistan lost faith in democratic procedures and were uninterested in democratization as a result of the country’s frequent elections between 1970 and 1997. Political parties are essential to the process of democratization because they collaborate to create laws that strengthen democracy and reach agreements on matters of economic and development. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s political conduct is immature as establishing democracy and holding elections do not always equate to resolving issues or toppling authorities. When political figures, parties, and the general public realize that democracy is a response to tyranny but not always to other problems, democracy begins to solidify. Different political institutions, a lack of agreement among lawmakers, and a low level of public participation in democratization define Pakistan’s democratic state.

Pakistan’s democratic destiny is likely influenced by religion, as it is a multiethnic nation based on the Two Nation Theory. The liberal interpretation of Islam aimed to promote tolerance and end the feudal system. However, political coercion led to the coup of 1977, and the General formed connections with religious groups and ulema, such as the Mullah, who fought for martial law and an Islamic state to destroy the secularist Bhutto Party. Efforts to implement a liberal interpretation of Islam, including strong democracy and fundamental human rights, failed after 1986.

The Jihadist Holy War in Afghanistan also cost liberal Islam. Since the end of martial law in 1985, religious political parties have struggled to maintain a significant majority in legislatures. Post 9/11, religious parties were allowed to run for office under the state-backed Alliance MMA, but their endorsement of the TTP and Jihadists negatively impacted the democratic process. Pakistan’s civil society began to form in 2002, with most NGOs engaged in service delivery and human rights advocacy. However, the state’s role remains unclear, as NGOs often operate in cities and face government obstacles.

With violent occurrences and threats against leaders and members, the state and political parties do not, however, have a very favourable culture towards civil society in Pakistan. A robust military and a lack of mature political conduct from elected parties pose serious dangers to Pakistan’s democratic system and efforts to democratise the country. Legislation for economic growth, combating poverty, terrorism, and advancing education should be developed by political parties in order to strengthen democracy. Change the rules of Praetorian issues and establish power reduction measures so that the military may transition to a professional force. Uncertainties should be eliminated from the military chain of command. In order to eliminate inequality and bring about changes to abolish the feudal system, political parties have to take the initiative to design national reforms. Civil society should be involved in national policy and coordinated with the democratic government.

Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
The writer has a PhD in Political Science, and is a visiting faculty member at QAU Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @zafarkhansafdar

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