Democracy at Work

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Cover Stories  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Having completed its five-year term, the coalition government looked like it had made history.

There is no (further) hurdle in the way. The last one, a money-laundering case in a Swiss court against President Zardari that threatened to deny the government its full term, has been successfully crossed. The only collateral damage was Yusuf Raza Gilani.

The legislatures were wound up by March 16. The government and opposition political parties had some issues sorting out the names of eligible candidates for a consensus caretaker prime minister. Meanwhile, the Chief Election Commissioner, Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim went ahead with preparations and arrangements for holding the elections.

There is a pervasive sense of satisfaction as signs look propitious for democracy to be established in Pakistan. Nobody holds grudges against giving a percentage cut if the other party delivers full measure. The people therefore have decided to ignore the weaknesses of President Asif Ali Zardari, in return for giving them five, full years of democracy for the first time in the sixty-five eventful (and woeful) years of the country’s history. It was by no means any easy sailing in the perennially choppy waters of Pakistan’s politics. But Zardari demonstrated remarkable political acumen by cobbling a coalition of diverse elements, often with conflicting viewpoints, such as the ANP and MQM. At the same time he cleverly exploited Nawaz Sharif’s mortal fear of military intervention to cool his fire.

This unique moment in Pakistan’s history, however, calls for a quick look back over the years spent in the quest for democracy.

The founder, a great constitutionalist, did not live long enough to see the sapling of democracy take firm root during his lifetime. In consequence, when he departed, things were  chaotic. Liaquat Ali Khan made a feeble attempt to sustain democracy but the anti-democracy forces arrayed against him were too strong for him to subdue. So he paid for his audacity with his life.

For the West Pakistani feudal elite, democracy was a bugbear. They had never known democracy. It clipped their wings. It impinged upon their freedom to do with their serfs as they wished. In sum, democracy was contrary to their political culture. East Pakistanis were different. They knew democracy. So they would not enter into any back-hand deal that might derail democracy.

Intrigues began immediately after Mr. Jinnah’s demise. Pakistan became a wrestling arena for power-seekers. Thus, Ghulam Mohammad who had no credentials for the job became governor-general. He dismissed Prime Minister Khwaja Nizamuddin because, being used to democratic practice as chief minister of pre-partition Bengal, the latter had tried to restrict the governor-general’s arbitrary powers. But, worse, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Munir, upheld the murder of democracy by Ghulam Mohammad.

Far from any democracy, there was not even a constitution. Whereas India and later, Bangladesh, gave themselves a constitution within a year of independence, Pakistan fumbled for about eight years until 1956 to have one. Whereas other countries stick to one constitution and insert amendments into it as circumstances dictate, Pakistan has had three constitutions in 65 years. The 1956 constitution was the first. In 1962 President Ayub Khan gave the second constitution. The last, badly battered yet still working constitution was promulgated in 1973.

Even before the country came under a full military dictatorship in 1958, it had been difficult to define its political profile. As the saying goes, it was “neither fish, nor flesh nor a good red herring.” It started as a British dominion with a governor-general at its head. It was neither truly parliamentary nor presidential. In 1956, it declared itself a republic. With the departure of Mr. Jinnah, a wrestling match for power amongst the leaders was launched. Pakistan saw four governors-general between 1947 and 1956. The last GG, Iskander Mirza, transited from governor-general to become Pakistan’s first president. But it was the coming and going of prime ministers in quick succession that looked like a game of musical chairs. There were seven prime ministers in the first eleven years of Pakistan’s history. Mostly they lasted for two years. Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and H.S. Suhrawardy each had a one-year stint. I.I. Chundrigar served for two months and Nurul Amin for only thirteen days.

From 1958 until the end of 1971, Pakistan was ruled by military dictators Ayub and Yahya Khan. The climate was too unfavorable for democracy to sustain and the sapling withered.

With Bhutto taking charge of the residual Pakistan after East Pakistan seceded, hopes for democracy resurged because he was a duly elected leader. A consensus constitution was promulgated. It looked like Pakistan’s politics had at last turned the corner. But the euphoria was short-lived. While anti-democratic forces were already at work to topple the edifice, Bhutto himself contributed to it with his arrogance and reckless actions.

The result was another lethal blow to democracy as Gen. Ziaul Haq overthrew him and took over the reins of government. Feigning deference to democracy he took Mohammad Khan Junejo as prime minster, but his dictatorship revealed itself when he fell out with Mr. Junejo and summarily dismissed him. With Ziaul Haq’s demise, though elected governments came to power, alternating between Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif, they were removed one after the other due to misrule. Nawaz Sharif in his second stint was toppled by then Army Chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

Musharraf also tried to lend a façade of democracy to his rule. Elections were held and prime ministers appointed. But Musharraf’s rule, despite being legitimized by the apex court, lacked authenticity.

It was in 2008, therefore, that democracy in its true form was installed in the country with the PPP in the saddle. The journey on the road to democracy has not been easy. Indeed, often it seemed like the boat would sink. With corruption at its peak, near total breakdown of law and order, ineffective governance, executive and judiciary in a state of perpetual standoff and the America factor to queer the pitch further, it would have invited some self-styled savior to step in and take charge. But, this time history did not repeat itself. The army chief betrayed no inclination to step in and opted to stay back in his GHQ to the frustration of those who thrive under dictatorship.

Opinions are divided as to whether democracy was better suited for the country or dictatorship. Dictator Ayub Khan invoked the people’s “genius” in his support; Zia called it “psyche.” Where Pakistan’s future is concerned, a perpetual debate on whether the system of government should be parliamentary or presidential also exists. The issue of democracy being un-Islamic has however been settled once and for all, since religious parties have reconciled to democracy and are playing a prominent role in it. The JUI (F) is even a coalition partner of the ruling party. This is a good augury for the country’s future.

Believers in democracy are looking forward to the next five years of democracy in the hope that they will be spared the sufferings they had to endure during the five Zardari years.

As for the present, it is a time to celebrate. So long only military dictatorships had lasted for long years. But this time an elected government has also completed its full term, weathering all storms. 

S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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