Pakistan’s Hide-and-Seek with Democracy, 1947-2011: The Bridge-to-Nowhere or Creeping Consolidation?

Pakistan’s Hide-and-Seek with Democracy, 1947-2011: The Bridge-to-Nowhere or  Creeping Consolidation?

Unlike India, Pakistan has struggled to institute democracy over the last sixty four years after gaining independence. Using the concepts of democratic transition, consolidation, stability and quality, this article investigates the impact of four sets of factors on Pakistan’s progress with democracy: structural, institutional, strategic choice and political economy. These factors emerge in Pakistan’s case as inter-connected levels of a comprehensive framework to evaluate democratization. Structural factors provide the foundation for the emergence of institutional factors, which in turn provide the grounds for strategic choice and transient political economy factors to affect the democratization in a country.

Since independence, Pakistan has experienced four periods of military rule which have consumed 35 out of its 64 years of independent existence. It has spent another seven years under unelected civilian rule while the army wielded disproportionate powers even during quasi-democratic regimes. Compared with the firm commitment to democracy of India, its twin at birth and putative arch enemy since then, Pakistan held its first national elections with near universal suffrage only 23 years after independence. Since then, it has held eight more elections of varying fairness and is currently ruled by an elected government, though it is not certain whether this government will complete its term and whether the next government will be ushered in democratically. However, its dictators have not ruled Pakistan with the same longevity and brutality as in Africa and have all been forced soon to attempt to legitimize themselves by introducing the trappings of democracy. In fact, they have usually seized power with the promise to introduce “real” democracy soon. Thus, democracy has remained the only game in town in theory. These contradictions make Pakistan an interesting case for analyzing the factors which impede the establishment of democracy in poor, ethnically diverse and traditional societies.

Scholars have ascribed various reasons for Pakistan’s erratic democratic progress, including the supposed contradiction between Islam and democracy, the incoherence of Pakistani nationalism, the strength of its army, the weaknesses of its political class and American support for dictators. Many of these explanations carry weight. However, they do not constitute a comprehensive framework for understanding Pakistan’s past zig-zag march towards democracy, its current status and future prospects. This article utilizes the concepts of democratic transition and consolidation to answer the following five questions: 1) What factors impeded a democratic transition in Pakistan and eventually facilitated it?; 2) What factors have undermined democratic consolidation since then?; 3) What is the quality of democracy presently?; 4) What are Pakistan’s future democratic prospects?; 5) What conclusions does Pakistan’s case provide about democratic transition and consolidation in developing countries? The next section develops an analytical framework for answering these questions. Section three provides an overview of Pakistan’s democratic journey to the present while answering the first two questions. Sections four focuses on the third question and the last section focuses on the fourth and fifth questions.

Analytical framework

Democracy represents governance of the people, by the people, for the people. A minimalist approach, championed by Huntington (1991) and Dahl (1971), views democracy as the holding of free, regular and competitive elections, i.e., whether access to state power is gained democratically. However, elections only represent governance “by the people”. Diamond (1999) and O’Donnell (2010) champion a more maximalist approach which also focuses on whether state power is exercised democratically, i.e., the two remaining aspects above. The concepts of democratic transition and consolidation can act as a bridge between these two approaches. Democratic transition is the first movement away from an authoritarian regime marked by the holding of a country’s first fair election with near-universal franchise, competition and acceptance (Munck, 2003). Thus, democratic transition represents the minimalist approach.
Democratic consolidation refers to the stage after democratic transition (Diamond, 1997; Schedler, 1998). It can be divided into two sub-components: democratic stability and quality. Democratic stability refers to the durability of the democratic transition and is marked by regular free, competitive and near-universal suffrage elections (Munck, 2003). Democratic stability exists when all major societal groups accept democracy as the only game in town (Linz and Stepan, 1997). Finally, democratic quality represents the maximalist vision and focuses on the democratic exercise of power. Adapting from Diamond (1999) and O’Donnell (2010), this article identifies seven specific dimensions of democratic consolidation, the first of which represents democratic stability and the remaining six represent democratic quality:

  • Regular, fair elections with near-universal suffrage, competition and acceptance
  • Empowered elected government unencumbered geographically or functionally by internal or external entities
  • Distribution of authority horizontally (across the executive, parliament, political parties, bureaucracy, judiciary and opposition) and vertically (devolution to smaller ethnic or administrative units)
  • Feedback loops (e.g., recall elections and active civil society)
  • Guarantee of civil and political liberties and equality, especially for minorities
  • Economic equity, i.e., equality of opportunities for all and safety nets for the vulnerable
  • The rule of law, with clear and nondiscriminatory laws and an efficient and effective justice system that covers both the general public and public officials

Since few developing countries score highly on these criteria, they are called electoral or illiberal democracies at best. Developed countries, termed liberal democracies, generally score highly on most of these criteria though those following neoliberal economic policies do not score highly on the economic equity criterion. Thus, neoliberal democracies may be a more suitable classification for them.

Scholars have identified four sets of factors which affect democratic transition and consolidation (Guo, 1999; Haynes, 2001):

  1. structural factors focus on the impact of macro-level societal structures,
  2. strategic choice factors, which focus on the micro-level choices of powerful elites based on their self-interests,
  3. institutional factors which focus on the interactions among societal institutions, and
  4. transient political economy factors.

Pakistan’s democratic trajectory, 1947-2011

Pakistan came into existence under an elected government in 1947. The British had organized nation-wide elections in undivided India in 1946 and the elected legislatures were subsequently divided up between India and Pakistan (Jalal, 1990). Assuming five-year validity for these legislatures, Pakistan should have called fresh elections by 1951-52, as done by India. Unfortunately, this did not happen in Pakistan for a variety of reasons.

At birth, Pakistan was divided into East and West Pakistan which were separated by a 1000 miles of Indian territory. This geographical division was overlaid by enormous ethnic diversity. Pakistan’s main ethnic group then was the Bengalis (over 50% of the population) who inhabited East Pakistan. The Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Sindhis and the Baloch inhabited West Pakistan and were joined at independence by migrants (Mohajirs) from India’s Muslim minority areas (Lieven, 2011). While numerically dominant, the Bengalis were thinly represented among Pakistan’s powerful social groups, i.e., the military, landlords, bureaucracy, businesspersons and middle class professionals. These groups were dominated by the West Pakistan-based Mohajirs and Punjabis, who thus had an incentive to thwart democracy and nullify the Bengali numerical advantage in order to keep power in their own hands (Jalal, 1990; Cohen, 2004).

The peculiar distribution of power among socio-economic groups also thwarted democracy. While middle-class professionals dominated the political leadership at independence, most of them were migrants from India who lacked strong political roots locally (Jaffrelot, 2002). While this middle-class should have been the natural champion of democracy, the Bengali majority and their own lack of roots discouraged them from playing this role and strengthened the military and bureaucracy. These unelected institutions were indigenous to West Pakistan and were inherently prejudiced against democracy (Jaffrelot, 2002). The conflict with India on Kashmir further strengthened the military’s hand as security issues became paramount. Consequently, elections kept getting postponed. The bureaucracy and the military orchestrated the removal of a number of governments and the state structure became centralized. This made the Bengalis feel marginalized within Pakistan (Jalal, 1990).

Pakistan soon developed close relationships with the US in order to counter India. The US had also identified Pakistani generals as reliable clients in the Cold War. Fearing that a democratic government may adopt anti-military policies after elections, Ayub Khan, the military leader, staged a coup in 1958 with tacit American support (Ali, 2008). American advisors subsequently played an active role in Pakistan and favored elitist economic policies. American aid supported capital-intensive industrialization and green revolution in western Pakistan at the expense of the east and neglected the social sectors (Ali, 2008; Gardezi and Rashid, 1983). This increased ethnic grievances among the Bengalis, Sindhis and the Baloch. While Ayub organized elections during this period, they did not meet the criteria of fair elections with universal suffrage but only acted to rubberstamp his transformation from a military to a civilian ruler.

In summary, the period from 1947-1965 was one of increasing authoritarianism because of all four sets of causal factors mentioned earlier. Structural factors were the most salient and manifested themselves in the shape of the ethnic diversity and its peculiar geographical dispersion across the two wings of the country. This set up an East vs. West political dynamic which was detrimental to the cause of democracy. Institutional factors were the next most important set of factors, in the shape of the mismatch between the strength of political parties and unelected institutions. External political economy factors, particularly the animosity with India and American support for the military, further undermined democracy. Finally, the strategic choices made by Ayub and other military officers in the pursuit of their own self-interest also undermined democracy. However, such strategic choices were subservient in importance to structural and institutional causes as without them, individuals would not have had the freedom to choose the options they did.

Pakistan fought a stalemated war with India in 1965, which undermined Ayub’s domestic political standing as he had promised a victory. Subsequently, the USA suspended its aid as a punishment, thus undermining his international standing. This caused an economic downturn within Pakistan given its heavy dependence on foreign loans, which constituted 8.7% of the GDP by 1964-65 (Ahmed and Amjad, 1984). Ethnic grievances crystallized institutionally in the shape of several popular political parties, the most prominent being the Awami League (AL) in East Pakistan and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in West Pakistan (Jalal, 1990). Civil society groups institutionalized into strong labor and student unions. Finally, Ayub’s health deteriorated by 1968. The combination of these institutional, political economy and strategic choice factors, in this order of importance, caused the eruption of intense pro-democracy movements. These pressures culminated in March 1969 in a “Pakistani Spring” leading to Ayub’s downfall after 10 years in power (Jalal, 1990).

Ayub transferred power to the military, which held Pakistan’s first free and universal elections in 1970. The elections resulted in an almost complete polarization, with the AL winning in East Pakistan and the PPP in West Pakistan (Jalal, 1990). Structural factors, which were unimportant in the transition to democracy to-date, became salient again as west-based military and the PPP refused to transfer power to the AL. This led to widespread insurgency in the east, brutal army action by Pakistan and finally war with India which ended with the division of Pakistan (Jalal, 1990). Power was then transferred in the new Pakistan to the PPP, leading to an imperfect democratic transition 25 years after independence.

Pakistan’s first elected government was led by Zulfiqar Bhutto, a Sindhi landlord with socialist ideology who increased spending on anti-poverty programs, undertook mild land reforms, nationalized private industry and established state-owned heavy industry (Gardezi and Rashid, 1983). Bhutto’s rule coincided with the Middle East oil boom, which produced job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis but also exposed Pakistan to the conservative Wahabi brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Bhutto organized rigged elections in 1977, which led to massive political demonstrations, partly funded by the money flowing in from the Middle East. The army, already uncomfortable under a strong-minded politician, imposed martial law in 1977 under General Zia, just when Bhutto was about to remove him. This ended Pakistan’s first brief democratic experiment (Ali, 2008).

Bhutto’s nuclear ambitions and socialist tendencies had chilled relations with the US. However, once the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the USA decided to support counter-insurgency activities there with the help of Pakistan in return for major US aid. Zia’s 11-years long dictatorship, made possible partly by American support, enhanced ethnic and sectarian tensions and fueled the spread of arms, drugs and fundamentalism as Zia sponsored numerous militant sectarian and ethnic groups in order to check-mate Bhutto’s party (Ali, 2008). Zia arranged rigged and party-less elections to earn a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy (Jalal, 1990). The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, and Zia soon thereafter perished in a mysterious air crash. This started a decade of quasi-democratic rule where the army maintained strategic control and twice instigated the dismissals of both Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfiqar Bhutto, and Sharif, a traditional industrial baron from Punjab. Benazir and Sharif were perceived as corrupt and inefficient leaders and their removal did not result in any major mass-based resistance (Ali, 2008). In the meantime, with the Soviet Union defeated, the USA re-dug the nuclear issue to apply economic sanctions on Pakistan, further hampering the performance of elected governments.

After pulling strings for a decade from the background, the Pakistan army finally ran out of patience with Sharif when he attempted to fire Musharraf, the Army Chief, and staged another coup in October 1999. The army government led by General Musharraf faced international isolation until 9/11 again brought the Pakistan army and the USA to each other’s doorsteps. American aid resumed and the nuclear issue was again forgotten. Musharraf, with tacit US support, organized rigged elections in 2002 to help an alliance of religious parties and the MMA, come to power in Balochistan and the KP provinces (Rashid, 2008).

The rigging reinvigorated a long-simmering separatist movement in Balochistan and unleashed creeping Talibanization in KP, which gradually spread throughout the country. Under growing American and Chinese pressure, Musharraf eventually launched a half-hearted operation against the Taliban, which provoked suicide attacks throughout the country (Ali, 2008). By 2007, Musharraf also faced strong opposition from middle class groups such as journalists, judges and lawyers due to his decision to fire a popular judge (Ghias, 2010). Alarmed by the increasing Talibanization and Musharraf’s rising unpopularity, the US arranged a secret deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto to facilitate a return to democracy (Ali, 2008). While Benazir got murdered, her party (the PPP) won the 2008 elections and soon engineered Musharraf’s exit. The PPP, less dependent on religious parties, has launched more vigorous attacks on militants. The Obama administration has continued to support the democratic regime led by Benazir’s widower, Asif Zardari. Thus, for the first time in Pakistan’s 60+ years’ history, the USA is strongly supporting an elected Pakistani government, though it has become highly unpopular due to its performance. However, this switching of American support from the army to elected governments has removed the most important external factor which has historically undermined democratic consolidation in Pakistan.

Thus, forty years after its imperfect democratic transition, Pakistan continues to search for democratic consolidation as both democratic stability and quality have eluded it. Since the 1971 elections, it has suffered two military dictatorships of around 10 years each, and has held eight national elections, most of which have been rigged (PILDAT, 2007). It is far from certain whether the current government will complete its turn and how the next government will come to power. Democracy is still not seen as the only game in town by several strong societal groups, including the army, militants and a significant section of the population which is disillusioned with the performance of democratic governments (PILDAT, 2008a&b). Again all four sets of factors have undermined democratic consolidation. Strategic choices played an important role as both Zia and Musharraf launched military coups under the threat of their personal removal. Political economy factors in the shape of the two Afghan wars and American support for dictators have also played a major role in perpetuating dictatorships in Pakistan.

However, the most important factors undermining democratic consolidation have been institutional, specifically the mismatch between the strength of the military and political parties. The military monopolizes around 20% of Pakistan’s annual budget and enjoys enormous military power as a result. However, this is not the only source of its power as it operates huge businesses which employ hundreds of thousands of people (Siddiqa, 2007). The army also enjoys considerable soft power among some sections of society who see it as the guardian of the country’s geographical and ideological boundaries and a more efficient and honest alternative to politicians. On the other hand, Pakistan’s political parties emerge from within its largely patronage-based economy where personal and family connections hold the key to economic advancement (Ahmed, 2001; Lieven, 2011). Traditional Pakistani families are inter-locked networks of political and economic patronage, starting from the local level and extending all the way to the national level. It is this pyramid of family-based patronage networks which produces the phenomena of dynastic politics in Pakistan. The dynastic leaders of major political parties sit at the top of large patronage networks and face strong pressures to reward supporters when they come to power. Consequently, they adopt state policies to reward supporters rather than rational policies which facilitate broad-based development. Corruption is endemic in such a scenario as part of the black money goes towards distributing largesse among supporters (Fair, et al., 2010). Gunther and Diamond (2001) define such parties as elite parties. These patterns of politics undermine their credibility among important domestic and international stakeholders, and make it easier for the army to informally wield significant powers even when elected governments are in place and to frequently take over formally when its core interests are under serious threat. Thus, structural societal factors provide the underlying basis for institutional factors and have played a key role in undermining democratic quality in Pakistan. The low democratic quality in turn further undermines democratic stability.

Democratic quality: present situation, future prospects

I now analyze the current status of democratic quality in Pakistan in the next section using the six dimensions identified earlier.

Unencumbered elected government: First, high democratic quality means that the powers of the elected government must not be unconstitutionally fettered, functionally or geographically. Functionally, a major fetter on Pakistani elected governments is the fact that Pakistan’s security and foreign policy largely resides with the military even during elected rule (Oldenburg, 2010). Elected governments have to keep in mind the military’s preferences in order to reduce the chances of another martial law. During formal military rule, the military also often institutes changes in the structures of the civilian government to enhance its own powers immediately and subsequently (PILDAT, 2008a&b). Geographically, parts of Pakistan often become ‘no-go’ areas where government writ does not prevail. While the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan has always been largely beyond government writ, parts of Balochistan and even Karachi (Pakistan’s largest city) are managed by militants. Tribal leaders and landlords maintain their own mini-fiefdoms. Since 2006, the Taliban have posed a big challenge to government writ as they captured some areas beyond FATA, reaching within 60 kilometers of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, by 2008. Since then their military might and political popularity has plummeted and they seem unlikely to capture power militarily or politically (Oldenburg, 2010).

Horizontal and vertical distribution of power: The flip side of power not being fettered unconstitutionally is that it should be fettered constitutionally by being distributed among different constitutional institutions. Horizontally, it must be distributed across the executive, legislature, judiciary and political parties. Vertically, it should be devolved provincially and locally. Shorn of considerable power unconstitutionally, Pakistani central executives become reluctant to share further power constitutionally. While the judiciary has succeeded in wresting some constitutional power, other horizontal institutions remain powerless (Ghias, 2010). In 2010, the parliament did pass a significant piece of legislation to enhance provincial autonomy. However local governments, toothless even earlier, are in limbo presently for the last one year (Burki, 2010).

Feedback loops: Third, high democratic quality requires vigorous feedback loops from the electorate to the elected in-between elections, including electoral mechanisms (e.g., recall elections) and civil society activities. While electoral mechanisms provide little space for the electorate to influence the behavior of the elected, civil society activity has certainly picked up in recent years. In particular, Pakistani media has become very vigorous and together with the legal fraternity played a major role in Musharraf’s downfall (Ghias, 2010; Zaidi, 2008). However, many feel that it is not responsible in its reporting, being overly driven by rating concerns, and needs a code of conduct. At the same time, threats to journalists’ safety in Pakistan remain among the highest globally (BBC, 2011). Consequently, Pakistan ranks 151 out of 178 countries on the Press Freedom index of the Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, 2010). Pakistan’s growing Diaspora in Europe and North America also offers high potential in strengthening the role of civil society in Pakistan (Abbasi, 2010). On the other hand, the role of labor unions in politics has reduced significantly since the 1960s due to the policies of subsequent governments which aimed to weaken them institutionally (Candland, 2007).

The rule of law: The fourth component of high democratic quality is the rule of law, with clear, nondiscriminatory laws and an efficient justice system to apply them to the public and public officials. The Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, ranks Pakistan among the bottom 10 countries out of the 66 countries ranked by it during 2011, and characterizes Pakistan as lagging behind even regionally on the rule of law. Government accountability and the justice system efficiency are low while corruption is high (WJP, 2011). Pakistan still uses many anachronistic British-era laws and has added other laws which discriminate against women and minorities. While the Supreme Court has breathed fire into the judicial system, lower courts do not provide efficient justice and the police are notoriously corrupt (Ghias, 2010; ICG, 2010).

Civic and political rights and equality: Fifth, high democratic quality includes the guarantee of civic and political rights and equality, including the freedom of speech, association, culture, religion, security, property etc. Beyond discriminatory state laws, large sections of Pakistan’s population, especially women and minorities, have lost these rights to non-state actors, e.g., militants and landlords, in the name of religion and tradition. Even elected governments lack the willingness and capacity to redress these rights. Pakistan ranks in the middle category of the Index of Freedom of the US-based Freedom House. However, a series of high-profile incidents in recent years have come together to give Pakistan an image much worse than these rankings. These include the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, both government officials who spoke out against the oppression of minorities, the routine murder and torture of women who marry of their own accord, and the frequent cases instituted against minorities for supposedly insulting Islam (Constable, 2011).

Economic equity: Sixth, high democratic quality includes the existence of programs and policies which enhance economic equity, i.e., equality of opportunities for all and safety nets for the vulnerable. Economic policies even under elected Pakistani governments remain elitist, with little attempt to tax the rich adequately and implement socio-economic programs. Pakistan’s tax-GDP ratio is among the lowest globally and socio-economic programs generally depend on foreign aid. As a result, Pakistan’s social indicators in the areas of literacy, health and gender equity are much below its recently acquired middle-income status. The total spent by the government on health, education and other social development programs is considerably less than the annual expenditure on defense (Ali, 2008).


Pakistan experienced an imperfect and bloody democratic transition 25 long years after independence while democratic stability and quality have eluded it in the 40 years since then. The most important factors that undermined democratic transition were structural, i.e., the geographical division between an eastern and western wings and the overlay of ethnic diversity. Another important structural factor was the patronage-based economy which undermined the emergence of strong non-elitist political parties. These structural factors gave rise to institutional mismatches, allowing the army to become stronger than political parties and civil society institutions. These institutional mismatches allowed individual strategic choice factors to become salient as a series of army generals exploited them to gain power. Finally, transient factors in the political economy played a facilitative role in undermining democracy including the Cold War and rivalry with India. While the specific factors have changed, the same four sets of factors have combined to undermine democratic stability and quality. The most important structural factor is still the patronage-based economy which undermines the emergence of stronger political parties who can provide high quality governance. This structural factor perpetuates the institutional mismatch and provides fertile ground for strategic choice and political economy factors to contribute to democratic non-consolidation.

However, certain encouraging signs can also be seen. As the economy has expanded and has become more merit-oriented, helped by the large migration of Pakistanis abroad, strong civil society groups are emerging in the shape of media groups, NGOs and professional groups who are exerting pressure for democratization and better governance. Externally, the United States no longer sees the Pakistan army as its most reliable client within Pakistan. The international environment is also becoming less tolerant of military coups. Finally, militants, who till a few years back, were threatening to conquer Pakistan have lost much of their fighting capacity as well as popularity among the general population. These changes provide some basis for greater optimism about the prospects of democratic consolidation in Pakistan.

Thus, the four sets of factors can be seen as part of a comprehensive and inter-locking framework where structural societal factors provide the chessboard on which different institutional constellations appear. These institutional constellations provide the drop-back for individual strategic choices and transient political economy factors. Thus, while the immediate triggers undermining democracy may appear to be strategic choice and transient political economy ones, it is important to identify the institutional and structural characteristics which shape the manifest factors. ■

Dr. Niaz Murtaza is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include studying alternatives to neoliberal globalization and political economy issues in South Asia, with a particular focus on Pakistan.

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