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The Tragic History of Pakistan's Politics

Aparna Pande

For Pakistan watchers, the recent dismissal of a popularly elected civilian prime minister is neither unique nor unpredictable. No civilian government has been allowed to be voted out by the country’s military-led oligarchy, of which the country’s judges are an integral part.

Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (1947-51) was a leader of the All India Muslim League, the party led by Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. Between 1951 and 1958, Pakistan had seven civilian prime ministers but only one governor general—Ghulam Muhammad (1951-56)—and one president—Iskander Mirza (1956-58), both of whom were former government officials. Each of the seven prime ministers, while leaders in their own right, were never allowed to stay in power long enough to pose a threat to either the military or the governor general/president.

Pakistan’s first military coup was staged in 1958 by General Muhamamd Ayub Khan, who stayed in power till 1969. Ayub attempted to convert Pakistan from a parliamentary to a presidential system but was never able to find requisite support. Not only was Ayub dismissive of the civilian leaders but he was equally dismissive of democracy and its suitability for a country like Pakistan. In his memoirs, Friends Not Masters, Ayub argues that Pakistan is not suited to democracy because: “You must understand that democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy we must have a cold climate like Britain.” If this were true then democracy would only flourish in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Russia.

Ayub’s views were not his alone. Over the years what has been known as Pakistan’s establishment—the military-bureaucratic-technocratic-judicial—has believed that democracy does not and will never flourish in a country like Pakistan. The arguments may vary from climate to illiteracy to corruption; the remedy is always the same: keep out popularly-elected civilian leaders. Ayub even tried to adopt what he called Basic Democracy, i.e., a controlled form of democratic rule.

In 1969 when Ayub decided to step down instead of holding elections and allowing the people to choose their own leader, he simply handed over power to then-army chief, Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. Yahya (1969-71) agreed to hold elections in 1970 and the Awami League, an East Pakistan based party, won the majority of the seats in Pakistan’s first free and fair elections since independence. Since the electoral results were not what the military and West Pakistan-centric oligarchy desired, martial law was imposed on East Pakistan. The subsequent war with India and the breakup of Pakistan led to Yahya’s resignation and the coming to power of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Under the 1973 constitution, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became Pakistan’s first popularly-elected civilian prime minister. Holding elections a year early in 1977, Bhutto faced a massive opposition who accused his government of rigging the elections. Before any compromise could be agreed upon amongst the various political parties, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Zia ul Haq took over power.

Following in Ayub’s footsteps, General Zia (1977-89) too believed that democracy did not suit Pakistan, though his reasons were more Islamist and realist. During Zia’s 11 years of military rule, there was only one prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo (1985-88), who was selected by Zia only to be dismissed when Junejo attempted to take independent decisions, including the decision to accept the Geneva Accords of 1988.

Zia’s sudden death in 1988 led to a 10-year period when a succession of civilian prime ministers came to power in Pakistan. None of them, however, stayed in power for their full term. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, was elected twice (1988-90; 1993-96) but dismissed from power both times by the president (and army chief). Nawaz Sharif, former Zia protégé and leader of the Muslim League was twice elected as prime minister (1990-93; 1997-99) but was never voted out of power.

In 1999, Pakistan’s third military coup was staged by Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, who stayed in power till 2008. Musharraf’s enlightened moderation was a throwback to Ayub’s Basic Democracy. During Musharraf’s nine years as president there were four prime ministers, all of whom were selected by him.

In February 2008, in Pakistan’s first free elections since 1970, Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies came to power. Despite both internal and external problems the current PPP-led coalition government has lasted for over four years, no mean accomplishment for a civilian led government.

While the higher judiciary in Pakistan has an iconic status amongst the middle class and elite, the history of this organ of government and its collaboration over the years with the coercive organs of the state must not be forgotten. In October 1954, Governor General Ghulam Mohammad dissolved the Constituent Assembly primarily because he disagreed with the new Constitution that the Assembly was about to adopt, which would have restricted his powers.

The president of the Constituent Assembly, Maulvi Tamizuddin, appealed to the courts. In 1955 then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Muhammad Munir, ruled that the Governor General still retained the power to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. Justice Munir justified Ghulam Muhammad’s decision to impose an emergency decree by citing Braxton’s maxim “that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity.” This “doctrine of necessity” was used in subsequent years to validate military coups and amendments to the constitutions by Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf. The current Supreme Court comprises of many judges who upheld Musharraf’s coup and granted him more powers than he requested.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, at regular intervals, military coups have been staged. What most analysts agree upon, however, is that the Pakistan army only stages a coup when it believes the coup will be welcomed by the people as it’s an army that seeks popular support for its actions in lieu of legitimacy. The last military period came to an end only in 2008 and the current army position prefers behind-the-scenes maneuvering to outright takeover of power. For the last four years the PPP-led civilian government has faced a multi-front assault: from the media, the judiciary, and the opposition along with managing a weak economy, internal threats and external relations.

If corruption were all that mattered, people wouldn’t vote for so-called corrupt parties anywhere in the world. If order and discipline were more important people would vote for autocrats, not messy and chaotic democracies. Pakistan’s tragedy is not its corrupt politicians or its weak economy or its location but rather a mindset prevalent amongst certain sections of the state and society that has never trusted the people’s will.

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