The Platform

Women voting in Pakistan's 2018 general election. (Commonwealth Secretariat)

Over the past several years, democracy in Pakistan has been undermined.

In its 2022 ranking, Freedom House labeled Pakistan as “partly free” and gave it a score of 15/40 on political rights, 22/60 on civil liberties, and 37/100 on global freedom. While Pakistan has held regular national and provincial elections since 2008, democracy is on retreat in the country.

According to Freedom House, in 2018, there were 116 electoral democracies in the world. However, most of these countries were categorized as illiberal democracies. According to Fareed Zakaria, a liberal democracy means “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms — what might be termed constitutional liberalism — is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.”

Constitutional liberalism manifested through the rule of law provides coherence and stability to political systems and strengthens civil liberties. However, due to an absence of the rule of law in Pakistan, which is exemplified by past judicial verdicts favoring military dictatorships and martial law, Pakistan’s democracy has been kneecapped by self-serving politicians.

Similarly, numerous governments have used civil and criminal laws to ban free speech, shut down political rallies and protests, and used anti-terrorism and anti-blasphemy laws to target political opponents. For example, the government has initiated several criminal cases against former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan argues these cases are politically motivated.

“Sedition cases against me – this is 144th case against me- and our senior ldr Ali Amin along with his imprisonment, are simply attempts to undermine our Party’s ability to fight elections. This is all part of London Plan in which Nawaz Sharif was given assurances that PTI would be crushed before elections through fake cases & imprisonment of its leadership,” Khan remarked in April on social media.

A free press is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. According to Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan is one of the deadliest countries for journalists. “Pakistan is one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists, with three to four murders each year that are often linked to cases of corruption or illegal trafficking and which go completely unpunished. Any journalist who crosses the red lines dictated by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – an intelligence agency offshoot – is liable to be the target of in-depth surveillance that could lead to abduction and detention for varying lengths of time in the state’s prisons or less official jails. Furthermore, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s leading military intelligence agency, is prepared to silence any critic once and for all.”

Although Pakistan has a democratically elected government and an independent judiciary, other indicators of constitutional liberalism including the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the right to political assembly are missing.

This untenable situation has resulted in political polarization, undermining the very foundation of what should make Pakistan a great country.

Muhammad Azam is a development practitioner in Pakistan. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. He is interested in land planning, digital geographies, and infrastructure-development.