Pakistan elections 2024: A short history of the country’s fraught experiments with democracy

Context- On Thursday, February 8, Pakistan is set to conduct its parliamentary elections. A total of 44 political parties will vie for a portion of the 266 available seats. This marks the 12th general election for the country since gaining independence almost 77 years ago.

Pakistan’s political journey has been fraught with instability. The country has seen three different constitutions, experienced three military coups, and despite having 30 prime ministers, none have managed to serve a complete five-year term.

A 23-year wait

  • Pakistan’s journey to democracy was delayed compared to India due to debates over national language, the role of Islam, provincial representation, and power distribution between the center and provinces.
  • After the implementation of its first constitution in March 1956, political instability continued with three prime ministers from different parties coming to power between 1956 and 1958. This led to a military coup by General Mohammad Ayub Khan, suspending the national elections indefinitely.
  • The military rule lasted for over a decade and was weakened due to Pakistan’s defeat against India in the 1965 war, urban unrest in West Pakistan, and the rise of Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan. Consequently, the first general elections were held in 1970.

Bangladesh, Bhutto, and back to martial law

  • The 1970 elections in Pakistan highlighted the country’s growing regionalism and social conflict. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party became the largest party in West Pakistan, while Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, advocating for provincial autonomy, dominated East Pakistan.
  • However, West Pakistani politicians and military leaders prevented Mujibur from assuming power, leading to a revolt in East Pakistan, a war with India, and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971.
  • Bhutto’s subsequent rule failed to bring significant change, with his policies being criticized as unambitious and repressive.
  • The 1977 elections saw Bhutto’s PPP win against the Pakistan National Alliance, but allegations of election rigging led to chaos. Bhutto’s imposition of martial law and arrest of opposition leaders paved the way for General Zia-ul Haq’s military coup in July 1977.

Military takes a step back, but doesn’t relinquish control

  • The 1985 general elections in Pakistan were unique as no political parties were allowed to participate, with candidates running individually. Despite this, the elections were significant for two reasons.
  • Firstly, the elected parliament was permitted to form political parties post-election, leading to the birth of the two-party parliamentary system and the emergence of the Muslim League as a key player.
  • Secondly, the military realized it could control politics without executing coups, opting for ‘oversight’ over ‘overlordship’.
  • To maintain control, Zia amended the 1973 Constitution, transitioning Pakistan from a parliamentary democracy to a semi-presidential system and granting himself more powers.
  • The military also used the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to influence election results. For instance, ahead of the 1988 elections, the ISI formed the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) alliance to prevent Benazir Bhutto’s PPP from gaining a majority. In the 1990 elections, the ISI helped the IJI win, leading to Nawaz Sharif becoming Pakistan’s prime minister for the first time.

Dictatorship returns

  • While the military initially supported Nawaz Sharif, their relationship fractured as he became a mass leader and prime minister, promoting a popular agenda and image. In the 1993 elections, the military helped Benazir Bhutto become prime minister, but couldn’t prevent Nawaz’s victory in the 1997 elections where his party won 46% of votes.
  • The 1997 election results weakened the military’s oversight system, leading them to revert to direct control via a coup in 1999, led by General Pervez Musharraf.
  • However, Musharraf’s aggressive stance on Kashmir and the failure of the 1999 Kargil War against India, coupled with Sharif’s reluctance to support him, factional disputes, and terrorism, led to another military coup to overthrow the civil government.

Another shot at democracy

  • The 2002 general elections in Pakistan took place three years after Musharraf’s coup. To consolidate power, Musharraf created the PML-Q faction, but failed to secure a majority. He then formed the PPP-Patriot group to establish a military government.
  • Musharraf’s rule ended in 2008 after conflicts with the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, the PPP won the most seats in the 2008 elections, forming a government with PML-N. Musharraf resigned and left for London.
  • The 2013 elections marked the first time a democratically-elected government completed its term. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N won the majority of seats, forming the government.
  • Sharif was ousted in 2017 due to the Panama Papers case, alleging a “judicial coup” by the military. In the 2018 elections, the military-backed PTI’s Imran Khan, who won the most seats.
  • However, Khan fell out with the military and was removed from government in 2022. He is currently in jail and barred from upcoming elections. Conversely, Nawaz Sharif has returned from exile and is allowed to run in the elections.

Conclusion- Pakistan’s political history has been a tumultuous journey marked by frequent military interventions, coups, and shifting alliances. The nation’s struggle for democracy has been hindered by power struggles and regional conflicts.

Going forward, the military’s influence on politics remains a significant concern. The future of Pakistan’s democracy hinges on the ability of its political institutions to navigate these complexities and establish a stable, representative government. The upcoming elections will be a crucial test of this resilience.


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