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The End of Democracy or a New Resurgence in Pakistan?

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a political economist based in Karachi and teaches at Columbia University, New York.

Pakistan’s general elections are scheduled to be held in July 2018. Contrary to the popular argument that the Pakistani military has revived complete dominance and hegemony over civilian and electoral politics, fewer people are now buying into the opinion in Pakistan that the military is somehow “better” than democracy. Unlike 1958, 1977, or 1999, when an outright military coup was welcomed and embraced, the options for the military are fewer and limited in 2018.

With the term of the most recent democratically elected government having come to an end a few days ago, we have also come to the end of the cycle, since 1977, where a decade of civilian government in Pakistan has been followed by a decade of military dictatorship. There are many who feel that democratic, electoral and civilian Pakistan, as it enters its 11th electoral cycle in a few weeks, has ceded power and control to a resurgent military in close alliance with the superior judiciary. The argument doing the rounds is that the democratic decade is over, and a “soft” military coup has already taken place.

Murderers of Democratisation

After Pakistan’s most free and fair elections ever in 1970, in which the charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won, the people of Pakistan were made victims of a cruel and brutalising military dictatorship from 1977 onwards, which came to an accidental end in 1988. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was not pushed out by the people of Pakistan, as was his military predecessor or subsequent successor, but fell from the sky. After Zia-ul-Haq’s unexpected departure, a deformed and mangled form of civilian electioneering emerged for a decade, undermining any of the small gains made in the name of an incipient democracy in the early 1970s. Throughout the “lost decade” of the 1990s, between 1988 and 1999, when 11 governments were in office, the military ruled, but did not govern directly, since it never needed to. When you hold as much power as the military did then, holding office becomes irrelevant.

An inexperienced political dispensation, much constrained and hampered by the military’s institutions and no match for their machinations, could not help but give democracy a bad name, as did the two governments of BenazirBhutto and Nawaz Sharif throughout the 1990s. This charade of a government run by civilians was ended in October 1999, when Pakistan’s next non-martial law military dictatorship was welcomed by large groups of citizens, ending a decade of inept civilian rule.

Chief of Army Staff and President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf’s nine years from 1999 to 2008 itself came to an end as the internal contradictions within his regime, which was alwaysmanifestly authoritarian, unelected, and, as in Pakistan’s repeated cases of military rule, came undone. For the second time in their history, the people of Pakistan forcefully removed a military dictator; the first time in 1968, and then 40 years later, in 2008. However, the significant difference between 1968 and 2008 was that this time the people and their representatives were in a position to form the government and rule, unlike in 1968, when the collapsing empire of a military general, Ayub Khan, was salvaged by one of his own, general Yahya Khan, who eventually called for elections in 1970, but is best known for overseeingthe genocide committed by West Pakistani Muslims, on their brothers and sisters in what was then East Pakistan.

Just as in 1988 when General Zia-ul-Haq was no longer in office, so too in 2008, Musharraf was ousted by popular democratic forces. Yet, already one can see that 2008 was not 1988, and within those two decades, much had changed in material forces and conditions in Pakistan, giving rise—since 2008 to a few weeks ago in 2018—to perhaps the most democratic era in Pakistan’s not-so-impressive, short, democratic history. Even when a military dictator held power—who by2008 had weakened considerablythrough his hubris—democratic forces were able to oust him from power following a vibrant election process. These gains were consolidated in 2013, when the first real democratic transition from one civilian government to another took place, again, perhaps for the only time without interference from any clandestine agency or institution. If 2008 wasthe rebirth of democracy in Pakistan, 2013 was its possible consolidation.Civilian elected forces were in a position to dominate and set the tone for a potential long-term democratic future.

End of Democratisation?

Any reader of the signs of today would answer the question strongly in the affirmative, as many have, and continue to do so. Following Nawaz Sharif’s ouster and disqualification in July 2017, with pre-poll engineering of assemblies and “electables,” with the rise of the military–judicial institutional alliance and harmonious pact, with well-articulated attempts (most successful) of strangulating comment (leave alone dissent) of substantive political issues in Pakistan’s once thriving, free, and vibrant media, it is not surprising that a broad consensus is emerging. The consensus is, in the terms of the Friday Times’ editorial (25 May 2018), that the forthcoming election in July will be a manipulated “selection 2018” where “a massive and unprecedented pre-election rigging exercise” is underway. Or, perhaps, not even that, with the din of chatter suggesting an extended tenure for the caretaker government.

From the hope which Pakistan showed in 2013, that it may be at a turning pointof emerging as a democracy, by 2017 thatseemed to have undergone change. Terms like a “soft coup” by the military,or a “judicial martial law” by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, have become part of the headlines in international and local newspapers and journals for a year now,as Pakistan heads towards its 11th general election. There has been a huge attack on the media, both electronic and print, by Pakistan’s military and its clandestine institutions, where newspapers and television channels have been bullied, harassed and threatened. With the local press muzzled, journalists and writers are now taking to social media and international newspapers to be able to write freely and without censorship about pressing political issues and about the elections. TheNew York Times, in a recent article on pre-poll rigging in Pakistan, wrote about a “fearsome campaign”by the military against its critics, quotingthe editor of Pakistan’s leading newspaper,Dawn, as this being more “suffocating than martial law.” The broad consensus emerging seems to suggest that while Nawaz Sharif and his party still remain popular and in a probable position to form a government (if free and fair elections actually were held), the military–judicial alliance is trying to ensure, through intimidationand persuasion, that Imran Khan emerges as someone who could head a coalition government, unable to effectively govern, so that it is controlled by the military and its new allies, the judiciary.

When Musharraf, who is an absconder from the Pakistani courts and is under trial for treason, has been allowed to contest the elections by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, and when Nawaz Sharif has been banned for life for failing to declare income he did not claim, the allegations that there is now a military–judicial alliance gain much credibility.

Many Pakistanis fear that the past is now set to become its future, yet again. They fear that it is not the open, cruel, martial law of Zia-ul-Haq, nor the seductive enchantment of a liberal lifestyle masquerading in a general’s uniform talking about an “enlightened moderation” which is about to emerge, but that the 1990s will find a repeat, where inexperienced democrats and desperate politicians of that time, such as Benazir Bhutto and the earlier version of Nawaz Sharif, spent most of their energies and resources undermining, and bringing down whoever was in the government. While politicians squabbled and conspired, the military sat by the sidelines holding complete power.

The Counter Narrative

Using the aforementioned narrative, rather than make a case for the Pakistan military’s revived complete dominance and hegemony over civilian and electoral politics and its actors, the now much-repeated argument, I would venture to make a counterclaim. The desperation of the military’s tactics—intimidating media houses, picking up journalists and bloggers, threats on the false accusation over “national security,” pressurising the judiciary to do the military’s legal bidding—are precisely an indication of the failures of the military’s attempt to dominate democracy, and indicate not its strength, but its desperation. By taking such measures, and by being unable to declare outright martial law, the military and its numerous clandestine bully boys are reduced to trying to manage the public, particularly the voting public, at this juncture, by spreading stories and using the judiciary to do their legal dirty work, without the confidence, assurance or guarantee that they (the military) will actually succeed. Nawaz Sharif out of office is perhaps as popular as when he was Prime Minister, and a case to be decided before the elections about whether he will go to jail, whatever the court’s decision, will probably benefit Sharif; a martyr if he goes to jail with his voice from prison, or free to roam the country seeking votes. Military strategy may have been miscalculated here.

The present, 2018, is not 1988, which followed a decade-long dark and vicious martial law under Zia-ul-Haq, nor is it 1999 when an adventurous and ambitious general, Musharraf, walked over weak democratic institutions and spaces. After a decade of democratisation since 2008 and despite obvious setbacks, Pakistan’s present is different from its past. For where there is power, which is often perceived to be unjust and particularly so in today’s judicial intervention process, there will always be resistance. In fact, even after a year of being removed from the office of Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif draws huge crowds in defiance to his unjust removal. Despite a near-blackout by the media, which has completely played into the hands of the military—more on account of multiple threats, than persuasion—every report by local and international journalists and scholars is saying that, even after such intimidation, Nawaz Sharif and his party still remain clear favourites to win. The entire military political machine is hell-bent on not letting that happen, come what may.

This last decade has seen Pakistan’s most vibrant, if not only, substantive democratic process. There is no denying the fact that much hope and expectation from the 2008 democratic revolution ousting a sitting former general-president has been lost, as non-democratic institutions have clawed their way to reclaim their once-assured dominance, now making alliances with other unelected institutions. Yet, despite this reversal, many elected and civilian groups, not least the ousted former Prime Minister himself and groups comprising representatives of the many disappeared Pakistani citizens—especially the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM)—largely based in the region which was until May this year called the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), have continued to raise their voice in a public space which is heavily managed and manipulated against them. Just as the military has ensured that Nawaz Sharif and members of his party are blanked out from all strains of the mainstream media, it has also done the same with the PTM, a group of young men from the FATA who are demanding equal rights as the rest of the citizens of Pakistan. Neither of the military blank-outs have worked, and both Nawaz Sharif and the PTM continue to gain growing respect through information flows, which, while restricted, manage to filter through. While the PTM has been blacked out completely, it has made effective use of social media and live-streaming of its events, reaching a wide niche audience. Social media has allowed for a more democratic space to also open up, reaching wide and diverse audiences.

Moreover, after 10 years of civilian representation, there have been greater expectations from a recurring process which has begun to take root in the public imagination and amongst civilian politicians themselves. Not all politicians are willing to be sold or do the military’s bidding, with many still holding on to their allegiance to Nawaz Sharif and his party, and to the political and electoral process. Even those who have waited for some umpire’s finger to show them the way, such as Imran Khan and members of his party who have hoped that they would merely be ushered in to form government by a nod from the military, require that the electorate finds them electable. Getting into government, if not taking some form of effective power, now rests on what the electorate decides. Pre-poll rigging, herding individuals from one party to the king’s party, and restricting discussion and dissent on the media might be rather easy; getting people to vote in a desired way when political consciousness has spread markedly are two very different things.

And, here is where the crux lies. While individuals and groups can be herded from one party to another, the continued support for Nawaz Sharif amongst the public, not just for a perceived unjust dismissal, but backed up by his party’s developmental programme, particularly at the local and provincial levels, continues to keep him in the game. So far, Nawaz Sharif continues to fight back, and is seen as the establishment’s man gone rogue, a sentiment which does not necessarily go against him in the public’s perceptions. In fact, this entire attempt of the military to manufacture an election with its preferred results, speaks of the desperation in the ranks of the military, which realises that parts of the domains it controlled have slipped from its hands.

The Fight for Democracy

Praetorian democracy has failed in Pakistan, when even a general as formidable as a Zia-ul-Haq had to dismiss his own chosen non-entity Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo, who questioned the latter, or when a Pervez Musharraf was forced to replace his own chosen Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali in a docile parliament after having created a king’s party. Even a compliant Prime Minister like Imran Khan, if the military succeeds in its designs to have him elected, is bound to take decisions which will unsettle his masters. The perceived hegemony of non-democratic institutions, particularly the military, will constantly be challenged by whatever its parliament has to offer, no matter how little, or apparently compliant, it is.

It is only the growing, strengthening and deepening of democracy, which makes Pakistan’s military desperate to take the sort of measures it has over the last year. Those who are convinced that the military has “won” this round of political control need to reconsider the fact that, unlike 1958, 1977 or 1999 when an outright military coup was welcomed and embraced, the options for the military are fewer and limited in 2018. Fewer people are now buying into the age-old mantra in Pakistan, that the military is somehow “better” than democracy, and alternative notions, such as the slogan “yeh jo dehshat gardi hai, is ke peche vardi hai” (it is the military which is actually the cause of terrorism) are being reproduced and circulated amongst different and alternative publics. The longer the democratisation process persists and fights back, the less the space and opportunity for the military’s dreams of a hegemonic dominance.


Updated On : 19th Jun, 2018


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