Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On September 20, the country’s foremost opposition political parties formed an anti-government alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). This was the sixth such alliance in the country’s political history. The PDM, led by the centrist PML-N and liberal-left PPP, has accused the centre-right PTI government of working with the military-establishment to form a ‘hybrid democracy’, dominated by the latter, with the former becoming its civilian vassal to erode political opposition against this arrangement. 

In April 1990, during a speech, the late Italian politician Professor Salvatore Valitutti had said “democracy breathes by two lungs, by the lung of the majority and the lung of the opposition.” But whereas political opposition is encouraged and institutionalised in liberal democracies, it is demonised and quashed in authoritarian systems. Even in what began to emerge as ‘hybrid democracies’ from the 1990s onwards —especially in countries making a transition from authoritarian rule to more pluralistic forms of government — political opposition is still treated with suspicion, and actively sidelined. 

This attitude is reflective of the manner in which many new post-colonial countries engaged with political opposition. Even decades after their formation, many such countries seem to have retained this attitude despite adopting democratic forms of government. In an essay for the January 1962 edition of Studies in Society and History, the American political scientist D.E. Apter writes that, during the early post-colonial period, governments in the newly-formed countries did not accept political opposition as a normal feature of the system.

According to Apter’s study, this was mainly due to the fact that these governments were formed by those who had struggled against colonial powers. They thus monopolised political legitimacy and the right to power. However, interestingly, Apter adds that the opposition to such governments also came from similar anti-colonial elements. But instead of integrating itself within the system as opposition, it was always aiming to dislodge the government and install a regime shaped by its own set of ideas.

The country’s politics seem to be caught in an endless loop of authoritarianism and revolt. This is natural when all opposition is crushed and delegitimised and bureaucrats continue to gain more power

Therefore, both the government and the opposition operated in a weak and vulnerable environment, where neither invested in building any strong political institutions in which both could constructively co-exist. Instead, the system that did emerge was politically illiberal and easily exploited by the more organised military and bureaucratic forces, which used quarrelling politicians as pawns. And since the politicians were more invested in bringing down their opponents, many of them became willing players in the hands of non-civilian forces who eventually managed to monopolise large segments of political and economic power. 

This is almost exactly how things in Pakistan turned out soon after the country’s creation in 1947. The country’s founding party and first ruling party, the Muslim League began to splinter almost immediately after the creation of Pakistan. Therefore, initial opposition to it mostly came from former comrades and from within, when political conflicts were triggered by a clash of personalities instead of ideas. Indirectly elected prime ministers, almost all from a single party, came and went (five in a matter of just eight years), and bureaucrats rose to become power-wielding presidents and governor-generals, unwilling to introduce parliamentary democracy. 

Even when the country’s Constituent Assembly managed to formulate a constitution in 1956 — nine years after Pakistan’s creation — democracy could not be established because, by then, politicians had become pawns of bureaucrats. In 1958, martial law was declared and the military, under Ayub Khan, moved in to monopolise power because it felt the bureaucrats and the politicians had failed. 

All opposition was crushed. Not only did the military monopolise political and economic power, it also claimed a monopoly over subjective ideas such as patriotism. Any opposition to it thus became an ‘unpatriotic’ act. The first major opposition alliance was formed in 1964 for a presidential election in which Ayub was seeking a second term. Left-wing parties, and right-wing Islamic outfits, disgruntled Muslim League factions, and non-Punjabi ethnic nationalists, came together to form the Combined Opposition Parties (COP). The alliance chose Ms Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as its candidate. The COP demanded parliamentary democracy and attacked Ayub’s presidential system as dictatorial. It didn’t take long for the regime to denounce the COP as an alliance of ‘anti-Pakistan’ elements. 

Ayub won a controversial election (January 1965) and the COP disintegrated. However, the consequence of this victory was not the further strengthening of the regime, but violent street protests three years later, in 1968, by opposition groups that forced Ayub to resign in March 1969. 

After 1971, the military-establishment, badly bruised by the loss of East Pakistan, retreated. Pakistan became a parliamentary democracy under Z.A. Bhutto. Bhutto’s party, the PPP had an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The assembly as a whole passed a new constitution in 1973 which was largely civic-nationalist in tenor, guaranteeing the supremacy of democratic institutions and civilian rule.

But Bhutto as PM began to see himself as the sole creator and guardian of a ‘new Pakistan’ and did not tolerate any opposition. The result was the creation of a United Front (UF) — consisting of right-wing opposition parties — whose sole purpose became dislodging the Bhutto regime. The UF evolved into becoming the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) during the 1977 elections. 

The PNA denounced Bhutto as being authoritarian, and demanded economic liberalisation and Shariah rule. The PPP and PNA thus contested the elections with each claiming they were better Muslims than the other. PNA lost. But this win too, being as controversial as Ayub’s 1965 victory, resulted in rioting that created the space for the military to return and reclaim the political ground that it had lost in 1971. 

The new dictatorship of Gen Zia crushed all opposition through severe punishments and often labelled opponents as ‘anti-Islam.’ The military-establishment not only re-monopolised political and economic power, but now also laid claim to Islam. 

To counter the dictatorship, the PPP formed the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), with eight other anti-Zia outfits. MRD protests were often violent. Zia survived. In 1985 he assembled his own party, the new Pakistan Muslim League (PML). But in 1988, suspecting opposition from within PML, he dismissed its government and then died in a plane crash. What followed was a ‘decade of democracy.’ But it was really a return to the politics of the 1950s. 

The government and the opposition constantly conspired to bring each other down, often by becoming willing players in the hands of the military-establishment, which refused to give up the space it had re-occupied in 1977. Even a slight hint that this space might be eroding saw yet another martial law (Gen Musharraf), the crushing of the opposition, controversial elections, the creation of another opposition alliance — the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) — and street violence. 

Pakistan’s politics has evolved like a vicious cycle within which are smaller cycles, which work like cogs to a larger wheel. In the recent past, the establishment believed that, by backing the rise of and the coming to power of a subservient Tehreek-i-Insaf and its neutralising mainstream opposition groups, would somehow break this cycle. But it hasn’t, because it can’t. It has only created yet another smaller cycle within the large one.

Legitimate democratic opposition, when sidelined, often re-emerges in a more violent manner. The cycle can only be broken when mainstream civilian and non-civilian stakeholders in Pakistan are willing to cede space and dissolve political, economic and ideological monopolies, according to the needs of the time. A consensus-based national government is that need, which can once and for all break the aforementioned cycle, before it repeats again.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 27th, 2020