Published January 14, 2018
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Whenever the history of democracy in Pakistan is being discussed, the topic of elections almost always begins from the historic 1970 elections. These were the first elections to be held in the country on the basis of adult franchise. Since then the country has held nine more elections. The elections held before the 1970 polls have not been discussed in as much detail as the ones held in and after 1970.

It is true that the country’s first decade (1947-57) was largely wasted on navel-gazing about the constitution. This delayed the introduction of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan (thus creating various ethnic and sectarian fissures within the volatile Pakistani polity). On the surface the two elections (held under Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracies’ system) in the 1960s are of little or no importance to most historians. Truth is that the 1965 presidential elections were almost as important as the 1970 polls.

Most commentators and historians only briefly comment on these elections because it is believed that these were “entirely rigged.” That’s why no one has really studied these in as much detail as they have the elections of 1970 and beyond. However, much is available in the shape of reports and commentaries on the elections in newspapers and magazines of the time. If one has the patience to go through most of these reports, one would not be exaggerating in suggesting that to ignore these elections or simply declaring them as “rigged” has largely been a case of sheer intellectual laziness.

Were the elections of 1965 really rigged?

The 1965 elections triggered a number of consequences which directly shaped the next 10 years of politics in Pakistan. To begin with, the elections were contested by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, a powerful sitting president, and Ms Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan’s founder. Secondly, the commotion that this combination created directly influenced the anti-Ayub movement in 1968 which forced him to resign (in March 1969) and set the scene for the 1970 elections.

For example, according to the January 4, 1965 edition of The Los Angeles Times, Ms Jinnah (after losing the elections) is quoted as saying that by contesting the election, she was actually heading a movement for democracy; and that even her defeat had provided new opportunities for the opposition to carry forward this movement.

Indeed, there were incidents of rigging reported by the local and foreign media, but M. Reza Pirbhai in his book Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation quotes from a letter authored by the head of the British Council in Pakistan as saying that most of the claims in this context were from “opposition circles” and he had found no evidence of any large scale rigging. What’s even more interesting is that in her concession speech (as reported by The Los Angeles Times), Ms Jinnah did not even once mention the word rigging. Instead, she lamented that the system under which the election was held “did not provide full opportunity for the effective expression of people’s will.” By this she meant the Basic Democracies’ system introduced by the Ayub regime in 1960 in which (to put it briefly) union councillors elected by the people constituted the basic democracies’/basic democrats who in turn would elect the president.

Ayub had won the first such election in 1960 as Field Marshal. In 1965 he was contesting as a member of his own faction of the Muslim League, the Convention Muslim League. The party (formed in 1962) stood for Ayub’s ideas of “Modernist/Progressive Islam” and widespread industrialisation. Ms Jinnah had initially welcomed Ayub’s military coup in October 1958. But in 1961 she had had a falling out with him. According to Pirbhai, Ms Jinnah was supportive of many of Ayub’s initial economic and social policies but she began to criticise him for undermining democratic rights. In 1963, she quietly joined the anti-Ayub faction of the Muslim League, the Council Muslim League.

Nadeem F. Paracha
Nadeem F. Paracha

Just before the January 1965 election, the Council League, the leftist National Awami Party (NAP), the Bengali-nationalist Awami League (AL), the moderate-right Nizam-i-Islam Party and the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) formed the Combined Opposition Party (COP). The COP requested Ms Jinnah to be its presidential candidate in the election. She reluctantly agreed. But her approval left many members of JI disgruntled because the party had overtly stated that women should be in a burqa (which Ms Jinnah had never worn) and that a woman could not be the head of a Muslim country.

The press had a field day as JI’s chief Abul Ala Maududi struggled to justify (through a fatwa) his party’s support for Ms Jinnah. Consequently, the pro-Ayub pirs joined the fray by mocking JI for following a woman politician. Even though the Ayub regime had been anti-clergy and scoffed at pirs, the pirs close to the Barelvi Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) backed him because they were opposed to JI’s concept of the faith. The commotion disgusted Ms Jinnah. She considered forgoing her candidature but was encouraged to stay in the race by hundreds of letters of support that she received from common people, as well as by the coaxing of Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, the chief of the AL.

Ayub was presiding over a booming economy fattened by rapid industrialisation; the introduction of revolutionary new methods of agricultural cultivation (the ‘Green Revolution’); and hefty US aid. The COP claimed that Ayub’s economic policies were only benefitting the economic elite and fuelling Ayub’s dictatorial policies. Ms Jinnah was well aware of the fact that all COP parties had different agendas. NAP wanted socialism and provincial autonomy for Baloch, Pakhtun and Sindhi ethnic communities while AL demanded provincial autonomy for the Bengali-majority East Pakistan. JI wanted Shariah laws but Council League wasn’t quite sure what it wanted. So Ms Jinnah decided to campaign on a one-point programme which demanded “real democracy” powered by “people’s will.” Both Ayub and Ms Jinnah managed to attract large audiences in their rallies. Some of her rallies were attacked by hooligans and petty government officials.

Ayub won 63 percent of the vote whereas Ms Jinnah bagged 37 percent. However, she was able to defeat the powerful president in three major urban centres: Karachi, Dhaka and Chittagong (while almost equalling his tally in Hyderabad). The COP disintegrated due to infighting after the election. But Ms Jinnah seemed satisfied, saying, “The people’s struggle for the restoration of their sovereignty has now entered a new phase.”

These turned out to be prophetic words because, even though, she passed away two years later in 1967, in 1968 an imploding economy (a fall-out of the 1965 Pak-India war) triggered a violent pro-democracy movement which forced Ayub to resign in 1969. In 1973, a new constitution declared Pakistan a parliamentary democracy.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 14th, 2018



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