11. November 2006. Analysen: Politik & Recht - Pakistan The Dilemma of Democracy in Pakistan

The changes in the world since the 1980s, the policy of Glasnost (transparency) in the former Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the so-called second, socialist world have altered the acceptance of representative democracy as the most suitable political system available in the world. Many countries of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union but also of the so-called developing world have since then taken to democracy as the model to be followed in their political setup. Parliamentary democracy in many parts of the world has proved to be workable though it is also no perfect political system. "Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, and separatists. That is the dilemma", said the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke about Jugoslavia in the 1990s.[1] It applies to other places like Algeria, Palestine and others also. But with the fact that the West has decided to promote democracy worldwide and to make the adherence to democracy a decisive criterion for the awarding of loans or development aid, the allocation of development funds and of other means of economic aid and cooperation, the incentives for "going democratic" have risen considerably throughout the world.

When on the 12th October 1999 for the third time in the 52 years of the existence of the country the army took over political power in Pakistan, the good old skeptics in the international arena [2] started coming out again as so many times before calling Pakistan a failed state and unfit for democracy. Also, Pakistanis themselves by now have their doubts about the failure of this type of political system. Their welcoming of the take-over by the army is a revealing expression of their understanding that the sham “democracy” before the take-over was not delivering. So, the question arises what is actually wrong with either democracy or the Pakistanis? To answer this question, I would propose to look into the concrete meaning and historical conditions of existence of democracy in Europe and in Pakistan.

The History of Democracy in South Asia

In South Asia, the principle of representative democracy had been introduced by the British, though incompletely, during the colonial period since the late 19th century. They started introducing councils at the central, provincial and local levels with partly elected members which in the beginning were mere debating clubs but which assumed with the passing of time a more important role. By 1935, the Government of India Act provided the British-Indian provinces with autonomy in certain fields like education and healthcare. Though the voting right remained a very limited one until the end of British rule in 1947 [3], the restrictions being imposed on the basis of education and income. No more than an estimated two or three per cent of the British Indian population were entitled to vote in the elections at the central, provincial and local levels by the end of the colonial period. The modern Indian intelligentsia being educated mainly on European lines accepted this European idea of nationalism, nation state and parliamentary democracy in principle though those Muslims who had studied the working of representation on majority lines in depth started demanding adjustments for the Indian situation.[4] The main reason for their critical attitude was that the main principle of representative democracy was majority rule. Whosoever commands a majority of votes for himself will win the seat or mandate and rule accordingly. This was an acceptable principle under British political circumstances where there were no fixed majorities or minorities and any minority had a realistic chance to be in a majority tomorrow.

It turned out to be different though in British-India. After the British had introduced the census system from 1871 onwards, it became quite clear that Indian society is very diverse and much less homogeneous. It was a traditional society structured into communities not only along ethnic lines, but along social (caste) lines and religious lines also. The census reports for the first time created awareness that there was an all-India Muslims community and that Muslims were a minority in British India, a fact that was not going to change soon. Given this diverse structure of the British-Indian society and the strong traditional social attachment of the communities, it was rightly assumed that the voting behavior of those who had got the right to vote would be dominated by the social group/community to which they belonged and not by belonging to any political ideology or party.[5] With group identities being mainly determined by religion in a mainly pre-modern society this meant that Muslims under a representative system would be a permanent minority. While trying to explain this, Sir S. A. Khan in 1893 made the famous comparison about representative democracy being like a game of dice where one player has got four dice and the other only one.[6] This was a situation which was not acceptable to the political leadership of the Muslims who belonged to the traditional Muslim elite especially of the Muslim minority provinces United Provinces, Bengal [7] and Bombay. The idea of reserved seats and/or separate electorates was developed by them in order to relieve their permanent minority situation by securing an acceptable share in political representation and access to power. Nevertheless, both, the leading opponents in this discussion Jawaharlal Nehru and M. A. Jinnah, had never any doubt in their minds as to the political system that should govern the country after independence. Both saw in representative democracy the only possible solution for a future independent India and Pakistan. All the negotiations between the Indian National Congress (INC) and the All-India Muslim League (AIML) since the Lucknow Pact of 1916 aimed at finding a solution for the problem of Muslims being in a permanent minority and of securing an adequate access to representation and political power for them. After the last negotiations between INC and AIML for a secured share in political power for the Muslim elite failed in July 1946 [8] and with the pressure for an early leave on the British side, partition seemed to be the quickest and only viable solution which brought those Muslims in Pakistan politically into a majority position and thus seemingly solved at least their problem.

Pakistan came into existence as a Muslim majority state under the Government of India Act of 1935 which made it a parliamentary democracy. All successive constitutions of Pakistan retained this notion of parliamentary democracy for Pakistan. Nonetheless, democracy did not work satisfactorily in Pakistan; it could not perform its tasks such as providing law and order, creating economic development and developing adequate political institutions. In 1958, the army stepped in for the first time to take over the political power and was equally welcomed by the people as in 1999.[9] In 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule was brought to an end by the army after political forces in the country had proved too weak to sort out the problems with the election rigged by the Bhutto government. What are the reasons for this repeated failure of democracy? It is quite clear that in all the cases there were foreign vested interests which did find it more convenient to deal with a military government than with a weak political one. Those external factors are left aside here deliberately. In any case it can be stated safely that the Pakistani state with its political parties and institutions has not been strong enough to tackle such emergency situations while the army has been a very strongly developed institution with considerable political power and power ambitions. The reasons for this we will try to explain later. In addition to this, we would like to argue here that the problems with the working of democracy are created by the fact that parliamentary democracy is a European political system developed for a modern, industrialized European society and almost all those basic conditions for running a democracy in Pakistan are missing or insufficient. The argument should neither be that Pakistan is not suited for democracy nor should it sanction army rule for all times to come. The argument is that the ground realities mentioned should be taken into consideration and an independent and serious discussion should be launched about how the mentioned problems can be approached and overcome.

European Democracy in a Pre-modern Society

Parliamentary Democracy is basically a way of running a state which evolved in Western Europe in the 18th/19th centuries under special socio-economic and cultural conditions.

Its development is a feature of what we call European modernity. What are the features of European modernity on the basis of which democracy was developed? The main feature is capitalist development in the economic sector of society preceded by the eradication of feudal landowning systems, by strong urbanization and industrialization processes and the mechanization of production and distribution. In the field of society modernity is characterized by the breaking up and elimination of feudal social groups. The process of bringing land into the capitalist market system by freeing it from feudal bonds and ownership relations drove landlords into finding new occupations for themselves as industrialists for instance or in professions. Peasants got either the ownership for the lands they were tilling and were relieved of their feudal bondage to the land and the landlord or lost all land and moved to the cities as free labour power. A class of bourgeois entrepreneurs developed, creating a market for the breaking up of pre-modern social institutions like extended families, clans, dependence on landlords. In the ideological field, processes like enlightenment, rationalism, development of science and technology, ideas of equality, freedom and fraternity and secularization characterized modernity. Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution shaped a new understanding of society and and about how that new society should organize itself politically. As a result, the parliamentary system of democracy with elections, adult franchise, political parties and political ideologies was designed. It evolved and was designed in a way which suited the newly developed social classes and groups of the Western European society, individuals freed of their economic, social and ideological bondages; with a liberal mind and free choice available to them.

Reviewing these factors we have to admit that almost all of them are missing or have a different design in Pakistan: capitalist economic development is weak and confined to few urban areas only, feudalism and tribalism have not been eradicated and are incorporated into the current socio-economic and political system. A land reform has never been successfully carried out; the sardari system [10] has never been eradicated. In the tribal belt of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) outdated colonial laws like the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) introduced by the British in the 19th century have until today not been replaced and the system of payment to tribal maliks [11] also introduced by the British has been perpetuated by successive Pakistan governments thus reinforcing the tribal power structures and value system which otherwise would probably have died a natural death by now. Accordingly, the transformation of the society to what is called modernity is incomplete with feudal/tribal social and economic dependencies and ideological mindsets prevailing even in the minds of those who are technically not feudals/tribals in the socio-economic sense. Some examples for this state of mind are the idea of family honour being entrenched in the women of the family, the idea that an official position entitles the holder to receive additional income and favours which in Europe and the West - not in traditional societies- comes under the chapter of corruption, or the idea that the right of a group/community over any member of the group is more important than the rights of that individual. Hence, ideas like equal rights or equal opportunities for all citizens are underdeveloped or missing. A freely and fairly elected parliament in Pakistan consists of feudal lords and tribal leaders who cannot be expected to carry out an anti-feudal or anti-tribal agenda, to change the laws which suit them and from which they benefit or initiate land reforms which would hit them and their families first. A middle class which could be the agent for such an agenda is missing or still not strong enough to force the leading feudals and tribals out of power.[12]

There is also another argument. Political institutions and political parties are an important element of parliamentary democracy. In the West, a political party is a group of like-minded people; like-minded in the sense that they share a certain political ideology, a common view about how the society should be run and developed. Those political ideologies (conservative, liberal, social-democratic or labour) have developed a set of ideas about how to run economy, what to teach, in which way society should develop. A member of a party has to share and actively profess that ideological ground on which his or her party is standing. Of course, at times, it can be beneficial for one’s carrier also to be a member of a certain party, but this is not a primary feature. In Pakistan political parties are private enterprises of single persons or families without any systematic and well established ideology. Terms like "Islamic socialism" are used as a cover for personal power purposes only; there is no such established theory of Islamic socialism and even no political will to develop one.[13] Another fact is that most of the political parties, being dominated by the ruling forces of this society are highly undemocratic in their inner structures. Those party leaders have life-time terms of office and party elections are not held on a regular basis. The system of accountability of the party leaders to the members of the parties and any discussion about further development of the party program are missing. Party leaders introduce their personal decisions as a fait accompli to the membership. How can representatives of such a party be expected to create democracy outside the party in the country when coming to power?[14]

Pakistan: A Weak State

The weakness of the political institutions in Pakistan is - together with the pre-modern, feudal and tribal socio-economic structures - one of the major reasons for the weakness of Pakistani democracy. This weakness gave the possibility and maybe the compulsion to the army to step in at certain points in the history of the Pakistani state when in a crisis situation the political government turned out to be not strong enough to deal with a situation or when a government tried to encroach on the power of the army. What was the reason for the weakness of state and political institutions in Pakistan? The argument here is to say that while from 15th of August 1947 onwards, the rest of India just carried on with what the British had left behind using all the settings, structures and institutions Pakistan had to start afresh with hardly any institutional set-up ready at hand. Pakistan had to adjust the greater number of refugees and it had to face the first crisis right after the coming of her into existence: the war on Kashmir. Politically, the INC which was a huge and experienced organization had largely withdrawn from those of the Pakistani territories where it had some stake (West Punjab, Peshawar, and Karachi). The population of what constituted now Pakistan was much less politicized and educated than in the British-Indian heartland. While under the British educational institutions, communication lines, and political institutions like councils, debating societies and libraries were established in the cities and administrative centers the areas constituting Pakistan with the exception of Lahore were mainly left out from this development. Political parties were founded and flourished and political actions like hartals [15], meetings and strikes were observed in the heartland of British India, not so much at the fringes of the subcontinent; the areas which constitute today Pakistan. Furthermore, the Muslim League was quite weakly organized and without a strong popular basis especially in the rural and tribal areas. It was a very different party from the INC: the Pakistan demand had been advocated strongest in the Muslim minority areas of UP and Bombay; on the Pakistani side the ML had hardly stable grass root organization and support. The main aim of the Muslim League’s political program had been the achievement of Pakistan without spelling out very clearly what that meant and what it should be like. After the coming into existence of Pakistan the ML was in dire need of a new program and direction which it found difficult to develop. Jinnah, the intellectual and factual leader of the ML, was busy in tackling the daily emergencies of the first months of Pakistan’s existence. Besides, his failing health may have been another reason for his reduced attention to the re-organization and re-adjustment of the ML to the demands of Pakistani reality. No other leader came to the rescue of the ML; it was torn between the ongoing power struggles of different Punjabi feudal families after the demise of Jinnah in 1948 and Liaqat Ali Khan’s[16] assassination in 1951. Regional parties with nationalist ideologies were perceived as enemies rather than a new feature in a growing independent party system of Pakistan. This vividly shows that the reorganization and development of political institutions in Pakistan met with many obstacles which kept them extremely weak from the very beginning. This created a power vacuum in the political set-up which was filled with ongoing quarrels of individual contenders for power. The only institution which was functional at that time and was re-organized at a quick pace was the Pakistani army. The Kashmir war and the (real or perceived) Indian military threat for Pakistan were two powerful factors which made the civilian governments concede overall priority to the army and its needs. The army was a well-established and functioning body and had the aura of being straightforward and void of corruption. With the coming down of the military to day-to-day political, administrative and economic involvement this became something like a self-fulfilling prophecy: theories about the capacity to modernize society were introduced and gained plausibility among the army itself and also among a part of the public.[17] This entrance of the military into politics proved to be a development which by now has made it a full-fledged player in Pakistan’s politics and economy.

The Future of Democracy in Pakistan

The idea of this article is to show how problematic it is to project a political principle or system developed in Europe for a European environment onto a society like the Pakistani one which is entirely different in its structure and which needs may be a long time to develop those characteristics on which the European model of democracy is resting. We could even ask if Pakistan is going to develop on the same lines as Europe had done before during the 17th to 19th centuries and how long would it take for the Pakistani society to reach a stage where democracy can function fully. Nevertheless, given the internal and external pressures for a quick implementation of democracy mentioned in the beginning how could this be possible?

Given the fact that developing the main ingredient for a democracy, namely democratically minded people, who have a free mind, are well educated and can consciously and fully participate in that democratic set-up, will take time. The proposal is that an interim form of political system should be developed which takes into account the ground realities. It makes no sense to close the eyes on them. One of the most forceful ground realities is the army as a full fledged political player in this country. No civilian government in the past could rule without the consent of the army and this seems to be the situation for the nearer future. Therefore, any such interim solution has to accommodate the political aspirations of the army ideally in an open and transparent for the larger public way. A National Security Council as it has been installed lately might be one way to do this, some changes in its rules could help to contain the army’s influence and make the proceedings accessible to the public. Another demand has to be that the imagined interim setup should give room to the development of political institutions. The parties need freedom for their activities but they should be made to develop democratic structures inside the organizations and a democratic culture. The interim setup has to be strong enough to perform all the tasks of a political system, i.e. it has to ensure stability of state and government including law and order; it has to provide smooth and non-violent transfers of power from one government to the next; it has to have an efficient accountability system for the rulers; it has to provide development to the economy and means to re-distribute the wealth created equitably among all sections of society.

Keeping in mind the fact that despite frequent interruptions democracy seems to be favoured by the countries population as a political system and given the international preferences to see democracy established in the countries of the world, any proposed interim setup has to be a democracy even if not in the traditional sense. It has to have elections and accountability and should show and smoothen the way towards a full-fledged democracy for Pakistan in the future. Independent thinking and discussion is the way to develop and define such an interim setup, political scientists and analysts have to play their role in this process of public thinking and discussion. This independent thinking should include questions like what economic and political measures are needed to change the social structure of Pakistani society. What kind of education or else would be helpful in developing the democratic mindset required? What role could Islam play in the whole process? Is the European type of secularism a requirement for democracy in Pakistan? How can the federal structure of the state be adjusted to include all parts of Pakistan into the process of reconstructing this country?

These and many other questions have to be asked and answered. In the process of doing so a nation-wide consensus should be evolved which could form the basis of a concerted effort to find a solution for one of the most burning problems of Pakistan.


[1] Quoted in: F. Zakaria, The future of freedom, New York: W.W. Nortion & Co., 2003, p.17.

[2] Forecasting a 'Yugoslavia-like fate', the US National Intelligence Council and Central Intelligence Agency, in a jointly prepared Global Futures Assessment Report, stated that Pakistan would be ripe with civil war, bloodshed, and inter-provincial rivalries.

[3] In the elections of 1945-46, only 15 per cent of the population were entitled to vote on a qualifications of literacy, property and income.

[4] Separate electorates in order to meet the different socio-political structures of the Indian society. - I regard partition in the first place as a result of missing readiness to adjust the political system for a more stable power-sharing model.

[5] The mentioned strong traditional attachment included tribal, caste and biradri loyalities which had always in addition to the ethnical also a religious element. The election campaigns appealed to these loyalities and it can be assumend that the pir or the landlord decided for the voters whom to vote for.

[6] This is a reference to the rate of Muslims in the Indian population of one fourth.

[7] The original province of Bengal which included Bihar and Orissa.

[8] The backing out of J. Nehru from the Cabinet mission plan, see Ayesha Jalal, The sole spokesman, Sange Meel 1999, p.209

[9] In 1999, many progressive Pakistani believed that Musharraf would be a chance for the country, that he could solve some of the problems the politicians could not before. They expected him to hold corrupt politicians to account, to influence society and business positivly, to come to terms with India, to solve the Kashmir conflict and to reduce the military expenses.

[10] Sardari system: The Balochis have preserved their ancient tribal structure. Each tribe or tuman has its chief and consists of several clans. Generally, the attachment to the tumandar or the tribal chief is very strong. During British rule the British didn't want to put resources into governing Balochistan’s small population, they opted for a system of indirect rule. The Frontier Crimes Regulation Act (1901) recognised the Sardars or tribal chiefs and allowed tribal customary law to prevail. The government scrupulously avoided interfering in its operation. This policy has been followed by the Pakistani state since 1947. Though Bhutto tried to abolish the sardari system, he did not succeed.

[11] Maliki system: Maliks are tribal elders in Pashtoon society who are entitled to draw a stipend from the government in return for acting as a government’s agent representing government interests. The system was introduced during the British time as a means to rule the adjoining to Afghanistan areas indirectly. It was kept in place after 1947.

[12] The weak formation of the middle class in Pakistan is, among other things, a result of processes in the 1920s when Indian Muslims started to be interested in industrial investments. At this point in time, the Hindu bourgeoisie was already represented in the most industries and because of this the entry for Muslims was difficult if not impossible.

[13] The political parties in Pakistan are not based upon different political theories like liberalism or social democracy. They are enterprises dominated by single persons or families which do not dispose of any consistent idea how to run the state and the economy.

[14] There are very few exceptions one being the Jamaat-i-Islami which has a detailed political ideology and a formally democratic inner party structure, few others could be named.

[15] Hartal means the Indian form of strike which includes the closing of all shops and business.

[16] Liaqat Ali Khan (1896-1951) had been a member of the Muslim League and since 1936 its general secretary. After the creation of Pakistan, he became the country’s first prime minister.

[17] Peter Lock, Exploring the changing role of the military in the economy,

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