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Pakistan: Years of Institutional Imbalance and Failure of Democracy

08 Sep 2023
By Professor Samina Yasmeen AM FAIIA
Noon League Meeting in Islambad. Source: Khalid Mahmood /

The recent fall from grace for the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, with his imprisonment and disqualification for the foreseeable future is the latest manifestation of the failure of a democratic system in Pakistan. Keeping the military happy must be a high priority for any would be prime minister. 

Since its creation in August 1947, founded on commitments to a parliamentary system, Pakistan has experienced a series of military regimes that have either directly or indirectly determined the nature and operationalisation of democracy in the country. This ability is directly related to the institutional imbalances that emerged soon after Pakistan’s independence: Fearful of a neighbouring India ending the dream of a state for Muslims, the newly created state sought patrons who could provide needed military muscle to thwart any hostile Indian intentions. Against the backdrop of the American search for allies in South and Southeast Asia to contain communist advances in the Cold War, this search resulted in Pakistan joining the US-led alliance system and receiving military and economic assistance. The process empowered the military, which gained a stronger voice in the structures that were being set up in the newly created state. Since then, despite the ups and downs in Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, the military has remained the paramount actor in the system.

Continuing the tradition established in British India, Pakistan’s military has projected itself as the custodian of law and order in the country. In line with this self-portrayal, throughout Pakistan’s 76 years of existence, the military has prescribed and implemented different political structures it deemed appropriate for the country. The list includes the Presidential system with Basic Democracy introduced by General Ayub Khan (1962), Yahya Khan’s Legal Framework Order (1970), General Zia-ul-Haq’s non-parliamentary democracy (1985), where the president retained the right to dismiss an elected prime minister, and President Pervez Musharraf’s revival of local bodies after the 1999 military coup.

The bureaucracy and judiciary have acted as enablers for the military. While the bureaucracy has implemented the decisions emanating from different democratic prescriptions, on occasions the judiciary has also facilitated the actions of the military.  In 1977, for example, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled against Begum Nusrat Bhutto who had challenged General Ziaul Haq’s military coup of July 1977 by invoking the doctrine of necessity. The Supreme Court also upheld the verdict by Lahore High Court thus paving the way for the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto being hanged in April 1979. More recently, in 2018, the Supreme Court disqualified Jahangir Tareen for life for being dishonest under Article 62 (1) of the Constitution in line with the preference of the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Guided by their interests, political elites have also been complicit in accepting and often endorsing the military’s predominance in Pakistan’s political system. Former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto owed his rise to power in a dismembered Pakistan after 1971 to the support from the military. Religious parties collaborated with and legitimised General Ziaul Haq’s military rule by joining the Majlis-e-Shoora established by him, before introducing the non-party democracy. Nawaz Sharif’s entry into politics and his ability to become the prime minister on three different occasions was also made possible due to his collaboration with the military. More recently, Imran Khan managed to assume the position of prime minister of Pakistan through direct support from the then COAS, Bajwa, who maneuvered the lifetime disqualification of Nawaz Sharif during his third term as the prime minister in 2018. The tables were turned when Imran Khan’s relationship with General Bajwa soured: concerned about increasing economic instability and Imran’s preference to retain General Faiz Hameed as the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Bajwa opted to engage Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Group (PML-N) and other political parties in securing the first ever Vote of No Confidence against a sitting prime minister in Pakistan.

Essentially, therefore, Pakistan’s democracy is shaped and reshaped by the military through active collaboration by other participants in the political scenario. Ordinary citizens remain recipients of the outcome of these collaborations and understandings with minimal say in the functioning of the political system. Real democracy in Pakistan, it may be argued, would only be possible if people were given the right to share their preferences.

A functioning democracy in Pakistan also requires leadership committed to guiding people into being responsible citizens who are willing to pay taxes and work hard. Imran Khan, while enjoying unprecedented popularity after his ouster, failed to instil this sense of responsibility, sometimes encouraging the youth by using religiously emotive invitations to join the jihad.

The responsibility of instilling responsible behaviour for a functioning democracy, however, is not limited to the leaders at the top. It equally rests with the elite that has “captured” the society to retain its elite status. The Toshakhana Case, which resulted in Imran Khan’s imprisonment, for example, clearly establishes a pattern in which politicians, bureaucrats, and others have paid nominal amounts for the gifts received from foreign countries while leaving the task of reciprocating such gestures by drawing upon the national funds.

Ultimately, however, any possibility of a functioning democracy is closely linked to the economic stability of the country. With more than 240 million people, 64 percent of them under 30 years of age, Pakistan needs economic stability to control skyrocketing inflation, higher energy and fuel costs for ordinary citizens, and an increasing sense of alienation and anger reminiscent of the early days of the Arab Spring of 2011. The stability may also arrest the flight of professionals that are leaving Pakistan in large numbers, with 450,110 only in the first six months of 2023. Failing that, with or without the military’s political prescriptions, Pakistan runs the risk of turning into another Lebanon.

Professor Samina Yasmeen AM FAIIA is Discipline Chair of Political Science and International Relations at the UWA’s School of Social Sciences. She is a teacher and researcher, and director and founder of the university’s Centre for Muslim States and Societies. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.