The Platform

Wikimedia; Photo illustration by John Lyman

At this point in the country’s history, many Pakistanis are questioning whether true democracy is a pipe dream.

Significant trials have marked Pakistan’s pursuit of democracy since its inception. As a postcolonial state, the country’s political stability, supported by a rigid bureaucratic structure, provided the scaffolding for democratic aspirations that have yet to be fully realized. Throughout its sixty-eight years, Pakistan has experienced a history of political turbulence interspersed with brief spans of democratic rule. Multiple elections have been held, yet the quest for a stable democracy remains unfulfilled due to numerous challenges and setbacks.

Upon gaining independence, Pakistan established a bicameral legislature and a parliamentary government, and in 1956, the country’s first constitution was adopted. However, it was nullified by martial law two years later. The nascent state saw eight different governments within its first eleven years, setting a precedent for an inconsistent democratic trajectory that continued up until 2008, oscillating between extended military dictatorships and briefly elected administrations.

Historical perspectives indicate that Pakistan’s democratic structures are not yet robust enough to designate the nation as a “strong democratic nation.” Mismanagement, an asymmetrical development of institutional frameworks, and the increasing political ambitions of military generals have led to the downfall of parliamentary democracy on four occasions. The military’s interference has consistently hindered political progress, suppressed established political parties, and fostered a brand of politics rooted in religion, ethnicity, and tribalism, using manipulated referenda to legitimize their dominance.

This patronage of religious and ethnic factions over time has facilitated the emergence of hubs for extremism and terrorism. Although the military eras were characterized by the degradation of democratic institutions and the country faced two wars with India, these times also coincided with significant economic growth and prosperity. In contrast, the short tenures of elected governments have been plagued with insufficient democratic advancement, marked by cycles of money laundering, nepotism, dynasty politics, and corruption, with sustainable governance remaining an elusive ideal.

The military’s overthrow of Pakistan’s first elected government in 1958 set a precedent for a succession of military takeovers and dictatorships that have marred the nation’s democratic landscape for decades. It was not until 1988 that Pakistan saw the election of a civilian government, which did not last long due to repeated military interventions. These coups, in 1958, 1977, and 1999, have not only undermined democratic institutions but also impeded the nation’s legal and constitutional progress.

The absence of political parties, a free press, healthy competition, and freedom of expression under military rule—all essential components of democracy—resulted in a loss of democratic values within Pakistani society. Consequently, the populace has been unable to discern between leaders of integrity and those marred by corruption. This has adversely affected the democratic process, and Pakistan’s political climate has been characterized by turmoil, with the military playing a significant role in politics and various civilian governments being dismissed on charges of corruption or incompetence. The country has predominantly grappled with political instability, worsened by frequent changes in leadership, pervasive corruption, and disharmony among political parties. Without the foundation of democracy, free and fair elections are not feasible, and peaceful governmental transitions are impeded.

As a result, individuals unfit for leadership find their way into positions of power, often cited as the primary reason for the failure of the nation’s democracy. Notably, none of the 18 prime ministers elected by parliament have completed a full term, while each military ruler has managed to remain in power for more than eight years. This historical context has left many, including observers within Pakistan, striving to comprehend the unique political mindset of the country.

Although Pakistan’s democracy lacks several core aspects found in Western democracies, it is possible to cultivate an effective democratic system by learning from past experiences. Furthermore, strengthening civil bodies and fostering collaboration between civil and military entities on key issues such as terrorism can improve the democratic framework. While Pakistan’s political system has seen some advancements, the journey towards a fully-fledged democracy is still underway.

One of the most significant barriers to democracy is the nation’s literacy rate. According to the most recent census, Pakistan has a literacy rate of 62.3%, indicating that approximately 60 million people are estimated to be illiterate. Despite these official figures, the actual literacy rate may be lower, and the number of children not in school remains a concern. As reported by the UN, Pakistan has 22.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 16 who are not attending school, which equates to 44% of the age group, ranking Pakistan as having the second-highest number of out-of-school children globally. Addressing this educational deficit is crucial for the progression of democracy in Pakistan.

Mohsin Fareed Shah is an undergrad studying Government and Public Policy at National Defence University, Islamabad.