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The Cycle of Democratic Crisis in Pakistan – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

The Cycle of Democratic Crisis in Pakistan - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Gouri Sankar Nag, Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay

The beagle of retreat of democracy in Pakistan sounds loud with Imran’s exit on 10th April and that is precisely what is really happening now in the ‘garrison state’. Hence our purpose here is not to put the blame on any terror group or to talk of any larger conspiracy—i.e. the usual narrative crafted officially to divert attention from its continuous failure and inner contradictions and to embolden the functioning of a ‘State above a State’ to dictate terms.

But make no mistake that it is going to brighten the prospect of stability in South Asia for Pakistan’s recurrent failure to sustain democracy and demotion from the rank of democratic status not only signifies its weak civilian control of the political machinery but it also exposes anew the old tussle between Islamabad and Rawalpindi in which the Pakistani state remains trapped for ever and suffers congenitally at the cost of ‘the army’s extraversion’.

As such, the latter is not only the architect of the vicious cycle of regime’s intermittent failure but there is more intriguing story lying underneath which invariably puts the army well-ensconced at the driver’s seat in the polity. Precisely the key factor is the fear of India or the legacy of the ideological bogey of Hindu nationalist agenda of Akhand Bharat to jeopardize Jinnah’s mental construct.

So one plausible way to define Pakistan is by its unmitigated hostility towards India rather than any positive scheme to engineer growth to reduce foreign reliance, or to maintain solidarity in an ethnically pluralist society. Hence we hardly wonder when Imran’s exit fits the hypothesis of a vicious cycle of return to a weaker, puppet civilian rule, one that can more easily be toppled or put at the beck and call of the formidable military behemoth.

Hence the convergence between the two is never based on principle but always driven by and purported as a means to siphon off tranches of dollars from America.

Thus democracy in Pakistan is always an eye-wash which never thinks of subordinating the military but rather villainies political parties as if they are the divisive force or the source of all troubles. Such an inclination of the political class in Pakistan explains the low trust that political parties enjoy in the eye of society and compels it to strike a deal with military in the hope to bag its support knowing fully well that the army would be the greatest beneficiary of the political goods, not the ordinary masses whose political mobilization would need nothing further than some unmet promises or “working lineage”.

As such the political parties in Pakistan suffer from a disconnect with the public that not only pre-empts any success of its policies but creates a kind of weak democratic culture in which a perception of corruption by the politicians are overplayed to sustain and nurture the notion of army’s clean and efficient image.

This is the situation why even the political opposition to the regime finds its base crippled and its timidity foregrounds close partnership with the military elites who knows it well how to sabotage democracy and democratization process by harping on the strings of security crisis as a permanent state of political brinkmanship.

Note the context in which Imran Khan had to step down. Apparently, it was caused by the defeat in the midnight trust vote but certainly it seems too oversimplified saga of the unfolding episode taking Pakistani politics invidiously to the edge of the precipice.

For Pakistan is always very sensitive to even small things that assumes dangerous proportion whether that is Asia Bibi case or US support for Afghan army. It shows how time and again Pakistan has behaved like a flash mob under the mindset of paranoia that impels it ‘perpetually to blame the troika of India, United States and Israel for its own ills’. So with such an embedded leitmotif that characterizes the state in Pakistan, can we naively accept the plain narrative that the PTI government has lost its credibility?

Besides, what was noticeable this time was the fact that it was for the first time in Pakistan’s political history that the head of the real executive was removed through a constitutional procedure instead of a military coup. So many questions are likely to crop up like how come it is possible for Shahbaz Sharif to muster the charisma overnight that Imran has commanded?

Even the contention of Pakistani economy’s shattered health cannot be a sole justification for ousting Khan from power. It is true that economic crisis overtook Pakistan since last 4-5 years and the austerity measures were more like a gallery show to draw media attention without any deeper thought of reform.

Of course, with the return of Taliban in Afghanistan and entry of millions of refugees within Pakistan added fuel not only to the turmoil on its western frontier but it also multiplied the internal security challenge to the Pakistani state.

On the top of it all, Covid was the death nail to the coffin. But what seems surprising is the sudden change of scenario despite Imran’s strong popular appeal among the youth and his cunning to sell anti-American rhetoric to the domestic audience while trying to balance US and China externally.

So, what we strongly perceive is a twin-factored game—increasing internal mismanagement that caused to bring about a certain hiatus between the army leadership and Prime Minister Imran Khan. And simultaneously it was Pakistan army’s increasing disillusionment of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government headed by Imran Khan for ineptitude in dealing with India at the immediate neighbourhood.

Of course, we are aware of the cases of ceasefire violations and gunfire exchanges in north Kashmir and the event of Balakot airstrike in February 2019 which had the escalation potential; yet Imran’s tenure could not throw a gauntlet to India either militarily or diplomatically.

Pakistan under the PTI regime could only draw some succour from China and Turkey vis-à-vis India. Pakistan’s motive was to provoke military tension so that its dormant foreign policy could acquire a new vigour to assert its position. But Pakistan was clever to understand that the US would not easily side with it in case of Indo-Pak conflict.

Thus what we find in Pakistani psyche is its return to the traditional bend deeply shaped by the memory of historical wound of the Partition of the Indian sub-continent in August 1947 when the moth-eaten state of Pakistan came into being consisting of West Pakistan and East Pakistan.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the first Governor-General of Pakistan, who died in 1948. In 1954 the Governor General Ghulam Muhammad declared a state of emergency and inducted a new political ministry. In August 1955 Iskander Mirza was installed as President, who on 7th October 1958 declared martial law and dissolved all political parties. Then Field Marshall Mahammad Ayub Khan took over the Presidency from Mirza on 27th October, 1958 and was confirmed in office by a national referendum in 1960.

On 12th January, 1965, Ayub Khan was elected as President for five years. In the wake of growing political and economic discontent followed by extensive disturbances, Ayub Khan resigned on 25th March 1969 and General Yahya Khan took over as Chief Martial Law Administrator. By then simmering discontent had come to the fore in East Pakistan.

On 1st January, 1970 normal political activity was allowed. The major issue being East Pakistani complaints of under-representation in the Central Government and an inadequate share of central revenues remained unresolved.

 In Pakistan’s first direct election, on the basis of universal suffrage, held on 7th December, 1970 and 17th January, 1971 endeavours were made to assuage the long-standing political discontent prevalent in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by allotting it majority representation in the new Assembly. Of the 300 seats for direct elections (162 from East Pakistan and 138 from West Pakistan) Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won 160 seats, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Zulfi kar Ali Bhutto 82, and other 58. The Assembly which was due to meet on 3 March 1971 was postponed and on 26th March 1971 Pakistan Government banned Awami League.

The Indo-Pak War of December 1971 (12 December to 23 December) resulted in the dismemberment of East Pakistan and emergence of independent Bangladesh. West Pakistan came to be known as Pakistan henceforth. On 20th December 1971 Bhutto replaced Yahya as President of Pakistan.

In July 1972 India and Pakistan concluded Shimla Agreement according to which both sides agreed to initiate negotiations by means of which the two countries could resolve their outstanding differences. On 14th August 1973 a new Constitution was adopted and Bhutto became the Prime Minister.

On 7th March 1977 General elections were held in Pakistan which returned Bhutto’s People’s Party to power with overwhelming majority. Pakistan National Alliance being the opposition denounced the election as fraudulent and instituted a series of strikes and demonstrations leading to the outbreak of violence throughout the country.

However, following the Coup on 5th July, 1977 leading politicians, including Bhutto, were arrested and martial law was imposed. General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq became the Chief Martial Law Administrator. Thus Pakistan was placed under military rule yet again and the 1973 Constitution was suspended. 

On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Pakistan sentenced Zulfi kar Ali Bhutto to death in February 1979 and on 5th April, 1979 Bhutto’s life came to an end. After assuming power General Zia banned all political parties and tried to convert the Pakistani State and society into an Islamic mold. On December 30, 1985 he arranged a controversial referendum and introduced many amendments to the 1973 Constitution.

In fact, ‘Since 1947, Pakistan has been run by military dictators three times. All three served as president for many years. Sometimes they used ‘flimsy elections or bizarre constitutional clauses to hide the autocratic nature of their rule.’ Therefore, we can say that the military holds a significant place in the history of Pakistan, as the Pakistani Armed Forces have played, and continue to play a significant role in the Pakistani establishment and shaping of the country.

Following the 1988 elections Muhammad Khan Junejo was nominated as the Prime Minister. He tried to foster a smooth transition from the army to civil authority. But on May 29th, 1988 Zia dissolved the legislature and removed Junejo. In the meantime Zia died in a plane crash on 17th August.

Thereafter Ghulam Ishak Khan was sworn in as the President. Following November elections of 1988, Benzir Bhutto, the Chairperson PPP became the Prime Minister. In 1990 the President dismissed Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif was assigned Prime Minister-ship in 1990 and he was dismissed in 1993 though only to be reinstated subsequently. ‘Pervez Musharaff toppled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999 through a coup.  

Musharaff held onto power until 2008.’ In the later years former international cricket star Imran Khan became the Prime Minister on a pledge to put an end to corruption and dynastic politics, after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the largest party in the mid-2018 General Election. With this new turnaround we thought Pakistan would rectify its past mistakes with a strong civilian government committed to face the dual challenges of pressures from the military establishment and militant Islam.

But the way how within less than four and half years of its coming to power, the new PTI government had to quit the corridor of ruling power rather exposed its feeble nature contrary to the claim of change that it flagged to appeal to the middle and lower-middle class voters.       

Thus the situation in Pakistan is slowly spiraling into crisis even though Imran Khan has already been replaced by Shahbaz Sharif, brother of earlier Pak ruler Nawaz Sharif. There is no gainsaying the fact crisis is intensifying in Pakistan step by step.

At this very moment a section of Pakistan’s political community has become turbulent over the newly ousted Premier Imran Khan. His politics were confusing and lacked the direction and consensus much needed to navigate the state out of crisis. The post-Covid scenario has a direct bearing on Pakistani politics. There is a realization that Pakistan is not in a position to go for a military option right now against India. On the other hand, the Sri Lankan crisis is an eye-opener for it of the consequences of dealing with China.

But more closely viewed Pakistan’s lack of sagacious political strategy becomes more evident in her relations or rather obsessions with India where it feels a widening gap especially after BJP came back to power recently in five Indian states. Pakistan could receive the alarming signal that led to the termination of the honeymoon between army and the PTI regime.

As such, the neighbours of Pakistan and other states in South and West Asia harbor legitimate reasons to be put on high alert, because the relationship between instability of Pakistan’s internal politics and the politics of the surrounding region and international diplomacy is very close and direct.

Shortly before Imran resigned Pakistan’s National Command Authority, Strategic Commissions and Strategic Forces tested surface-to-surface medium range ballistic missile Shaheen III which Indian experts thought was made to target India’s northeast. It was a revalidation of army’s will despite the political crisis that compelled Imran Khan to step down. He was by no means a virtuous and constitution-obeying Prime Minister. Continuing corruption, conspiracy and unconstitutional activities along with political maneuvering were integral parts to his career-history.

No wonder the no-confidence motion against him was passed, and the Supreme Court’s decision to remove him; therefore, it was no surprise in this whole episode which took place in Pakistan’s political system. Other opponents, including Benazir Bhutto’s son and PPP Leader Bilabal Bhutto Zardari, were right in saying that Imran Khan wanted to disrupt the country’s democratic process, perhaps with the help of a section of the military.

It is also not surprising that his ouster was so strong that it was quickly decided who would be the next Prime Minister of the Pakistani state. But the very crisis might continue and linger. It exposes how fragile Pakistan’s democracy has become, systematically and politically, and the present crisis is but the tip of the iceberg of explosive state of affairs, has been proven anew. The root cause for concern lies here.

There is a tendency in Pakistan to describe the Supreme Court ruling against Imran Khan as the new dawn of democracy, as he promoted unconstitutional wrong-doing, as the Prime Minister. But in the moment of this so-called democracy unveiling directed by the Court, there is no way without realizing how dangerous this path is systematically.

In this context, it is good to remember that Imran Khan who was in ruling power due to the trickling of patronage from Pakistan’s military power had to quit since he lost the confidence of the military establishment of that state. As a result, in the future the judiciary might come forward and intervene to curb unconstitutional powers of the twin power centres—Islamabad and Rawalpindi but it is only a matter of conjecture if not a faint hope of how much that would help in salvaging democracy in Pakistan.

It is worth noting here that the judiciary has previously made a few ‘unpleasant’ decisions against earlier ruler Nawaz Sharif, or in the case of some important Judges; behind all this there was the infallible hidden finger-pointing of the military. One thing must be remembered that crisis does not end-up in a single spring. Democracy that does not exist at all in Pakistan should not be nurtured or celebrated by a single Court ruling only.

There is no denying that Imran Khan’s expulsion is leaving Pakistan in the lurch, as it is, in the face of the additional military dominance, and in the throes of a military coup over democracy. This hard reality of Pakistan has been a constant companion since its birth. Even today in the 21st century too, this trend has not yet changed. The fact that there is no dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition even if there is a Parliament, weakening the democratic institutions one after the other and making them spineless – what is the result of all this, Pakistan is showing?

The Pak Constitution says that if the National Assembly is dissolved, it must be reconstituted within 60 to 90 days; in that case the country’s next national election may be held this year. But if the shortcomings at this early stage of democracy cannot be remedied with genuine efforts, then all the elections in Pakistan stand the prospect of hopeless status quo.

The verdict of the people acts as a baby crocodile, as long as the military leadership intends to publicly exploit it to curry favour to justify its usefulness in the political system. However, we have to look to the future and observe when the sun of democracy brilliantly illuminates in the destiny of Pakistan instead of military finger-pointing.

Read more by Gouri Sankar Nag and Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay here:

The Toxicity of ‘Pegasus’ Expose| 3 August, 2021

About the Authors

Dr Gouri Sankar Nag, Professor in Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University.

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Dr Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay, Associate Professor of Political Science at the PG Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, West Bengal. 

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