FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 12

Why stable democracy has eluded Pakistan

In the midst of current electoral controversies and challenges, a question is being widely asked why democracy has not been able to strike strong roots in Pakistan during the last 70 years. There are many opinions on this issue, all different from each other and sometimes diametrically opposed.

The question is not easy to answer as it involves many historical, political, social, and economic factors. But one reason often cited is the repeated imposition of martial law which sets back the ongoing democratic evolution for many years. From the time of General Ayub Khan the military has played a dominant role in national politics, leading to interruptions in democratic process. According to experts, long years of military rule have undermined the normal development of stable democratic institutions in the country. Ayub Khan was followed by General Yahya Khan after which ZA Bhutto established a civilian government. But within five years Bhutto was toppled by General Zia ul Haq who ruled for over 10 years. Then followed in quick succession four civilian governments of the PPP and the PML-N none of which completed their tenure. The last military takeover was by General Musharraf who bowed out under pressure from a countrywide lawyers’ movement.

After Musharraf’s exit from the scene, two governments under the PPP and the PML-N completed their five-year terms. Then came the PTI government led by Imran Khan which was ousted in its fourth year by a controversial no-confidence move in which the then army chief played a dubious role. Over the last sixty years, the power dynamics between the civilian government and the military have been a constant challenge. Frequent military interventions and the influence of the military on key national security issues have created a delicate balance, making it difficult for civilian governments to assert their authority. Pakistan has witnessed frequent changes in government, with extended periods of political instability, corruption, and governance challenges. These factors contribute to a lack of trust in political institutions and hinder the growth of a stable democratic system.

Economic issues, including poverty and inequality, have also been persistent challenges in Pakistan. Economic instability fuels social unrest and dissatisfaction, impacting the success and stability of democratic governance. Levels of education and political awareness also play a role. In some cases, a lack of education and awareness among the population may hinder the establishment of a strong democratic culture. The role and behavior of political parties in Pakistan have varied, and internal party dynamics have sometimes contributed to political instability. Infighting, lack of party discipline, and frequent changes in party alliances have undermined the democratic process. The factors mentioned above are interconnected, and addressing them collectively is crucial for the establishment of a robust democratic system.

Human wisdom has yet to evolve a better system for smooth transfer of power based on a free expression of popular will. A government constituted by the people’s free choice is the best suited to find viable solutions for the problems facing the nation. In the west democracy has flourished because the governments there have educated their people to raise socio-political awareness and empowered them to choose the best leaders. Education plays an important role in strengthening democracy because it makes citizens aware of their constitutional rights, and enhances their ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Low literacy rate in Pakistan is a big hurdle impeding the establishment of strong democratic institutions. Despite the commitment under Article 25-A to provide free education to all, over half the population still remains uneducated. Until the masses are educated, a true democracy will remain a dream.

Another big impediment to democratic evolution is the prevailing feudal culture. Feudal lords join political parties to gain political power so that they can maintain their hold over the underprivileged people living in their areas. They also block all progressive legislation and policies for land reforms and other measures to improve the lot of the common people.

Elections are the only way to ascertain the will of the people but all elections, especially in the nineties and later, have proved controversial with the losing party crying foul and accusing the winner of rigging and manipulating the results. Since 2008, election results have been a bone of contention, with the opposition holding long marches and creating a law and order situation in the country. The credibility and impartiality of the Election Commission of Pakistan has been called into question in this regard.

The judiciary has a critical role to play in fostering political and social cohesion and harmony but unfortunately the courts burdened with a huge backlog of cases fail to dispense speedy justice, especially in cases involving contentious issues between rival political candidates or factions. Needless to say, without unadulterated rule of law and upholding constitutional provisions, no society can achieve political stability. However, Pakistan’s judicial history offers many examples of controversial verdicts undermining people’s faith in the judicial process.

According to the 2022 Democracy Index’s global ranking, Pakistan stood at 105th position among 165 nations. Its system of government has been variously described as a flawed democracy or hybrid regime. Countries falling in the hybrid or flawed democracy categories are those where elections are marred by irregularities. For Pakistan to become a stable democracy, a basic requirement is holding of fair elections which is possible only by making the Election Commission fully independent and free of all pressures from visible and invisible sources. Most important of all, democracy cannot flourish in Pakistan unless political parties democratize their own organizational structure. Dynastic politics has proved the bane of democracy in Pakistan.