The significance of this unprecedented and relatively smooth transition can be gauged from how badly civilian governments have fared in the past – from the first general election in 1970 until the one held in 2008, there has been an evident power struggle between state institutions. Allegations of pre-poll rigging, corruption charges, other claims relating to abuse of power as well as the deteriorating law and order situation in the country have disrupted the tenures of elected civilian governments midway.
The complications were evident from the start when the first ever general election was held in the country in 1970 under the inspection of then president and military ruler General Yahya Khan. Though Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League won the majority of seats in the National Assembly, it was not handed over power which eventually led to a mass uprising in East Pakistan.
Subsequent war with India in 1971 resulted not only in the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan (now Bangladesh) but also led to enough unrest to force the jazzy general to hand over the mantle to the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto took charge as the president as well as the first civilian chief martial law administrator of a newly dismembered Pakistan on December 20, 1971.
Chaos followed the separation of East Pakistan from Pakistan and Bhutto was handed over the presidency the same year. Subsequently, with the passage of the 1973 Constitution, he resigned from presidency and was elected prime minister by the National Assembly on August 14, 1973. The same day Fazal Elahi Chaudhry took oath as the country’s president.
The 70s was a decade of parallel successes and setbacks for the Bhutto government. While the parliament unanimously approved a constitution, the dismissal of Balochistan’s elected provincial government was met with civil unrest and uprising. The situation was confronted with an army operation in the province which led to thousands of casualties and a stand off between the state and the province which continues to date.
However, a significant success for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader was the signing of the Simla agreement with India, which led to the repatriation of over 90,000 prisoners of war and the return of 5,113 square miles land. He also drew a lot of attention internationally for hosting the second conference of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1974. Eventually, ties with China and Saudi Arabia were established and Bangladesh was recognised as an independent state.
Both Nawaz Sharif's and Benazir Bhutto's governments could not complete the stipulated five-year terms, after being ousted on allegations of corruption, deteriorating law and order and a host of other reasons.The pitfall came when Bhutto’s nationalisation of the country’s major industries brought in economic stagnation rather than an immediate, expected boom. His policy came under sharp criticism from several quarters and was regarded as flawed.
Amid political unrest and civil disorder, the 1977 general elections was held, bringing a widespread victory for the PPP. But the opposition, united under the banner of the Pakistan National Alliance, cried foul, resulting in mounting protests and turmoil in the country. Bhutto was eventually deposed in what is known as a bloodless coup, by General Ziaul Haq, the army chief at the time whom Bhutto had chosen for the position due to his seeming "lack of political ambition".
Bhutto was not only ousted, but controversially tried and convicted by the Supreme Court for the charge of sanctioning the murder of Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan, the father of Ahmad Raza Kasuri, in 1979. The conviction followed his hanging on April 4, 1979 in Central jail, Rawalpindi.
Zia’s nine year rule is regarded as the longest by an army chief. He initially ruled as the martial law administrator, but later took charge as the president as well. With further amendments and decrees added to the constitution, Zia went on to become the undisputed ruler of the country, known for leading one the most repressive regimes Pakistan has ever witnessed.
During his regime, Pakistan’s record on human rights and press freedom nosedived. Inclusion of laws derived from religion and religious decrees was also a priority for his administration which accompanied endorsement and support for militants fighting the Soviets and Soviet-led Afghan forces.
Although for a brief time, between 1985 and 1988, the general did appoint a civilian prime minister, he later dissolved the national assembly and removed premier Muhammad Khan Junejo by the use of Article 58(2) b. Zia then promised to hold the election and around that time Benazir Bhutto also decided to contest the polls.
However, in August 1988, within months of the assemblies’ dissolution, the conservative ruler died in a mysterious plane crash. With the autocratic ruler gone, a new hope for democracy’s revival sprang among politicians who were either waiting on the sidelines in self-exile or were barred from contesting elections.