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A milestone for Pakistan’s shaky democracy

Published Mar 24, 2013 02:35pm


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It’s history in the making – for the first time in Pakistan’s chequered political landscape, a democratically-elected, civilian government has completed its full five-year term and power has been handed over to a caretaker set-up.

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.

Then onwards, it has seemed like a game of musical chairs between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Both their 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.

In the1988 election, PPP gained 93 out of the 207 general seats and Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan’s first female prime minister. But the euphoria was short-lived as her government was toppled in 1990 by the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan on charges pertaining to corruption and failure to maintain law and order.

Later in 1990, a general election was held and a conservative party, Islamic Democratic Alliance, emerged victorious. Nawaz Sharif, the head of the party, became the prime minister, but resigned in 1993 in the wake of a power struggle between himself and Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

Another election was then held in October 1993 which saw Benazir Bhutto making a comeback. Once again, though, her government was dismissed primarily over corruption charges levelled against her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Strife in Sindh, a continuing stand off with the Supreme Court and the death of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto, in a ‘police encounter’ in Karachi, also factored in to the dismissal of her government by President Farooq Leghari.

Murtaza Bhutto’s controversial death benefited Nawaz Sharif in the election later held in 1997 as it had turned public opinion against Benazir and Zardari.

However, Nawaz could not stay much longer in power either after his conflicts with the Supreme Court and the military started to become public knowledge. After dismissing  Jahangir Karamat from the position of the army chief and installing Pervez Musharraf in the former’s stead in 1998, Sharif also had a falling out with the latter who staged a coup and took on power in October 1999.

Pervez Musharraf took on the position of the country’s president in 2001. Initially deemed “progressive” by some analysts for the way he handled bilateral ties with the United States in wake of the September 11 attacks, his reputation began to nosedive.

He was hugely unpopular in the latter part of his rule. The killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006, the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the imposition of emergency in the country in November 2007 marked the end of his rule. Rising unrest in the country and the lawyers’ movement to reinstate the deposed judges turned public opinion against him.

The country’s media, which had seen significance progress in the first few years of Musharraf’s rule, experienced a number of instances where their freedom was curbed. Moreover, during the time, Benazir Bhutto made a comeback with speculations rife regarding a deal with Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif also joined her later on in hopes of making a coalition government with the PPP.

Her return to Pakistan was marked by a botched assassination attempt. Not backing off, she held a number of public meetings where she spoke on the lack of security in spite of the evident threats to her life.

However, the former prime minister, who many considered charming and popular despite the corruption allegations, was assassinated on December 2007. Her death sent shock waves across the country and pressure amassed on Musharraf, who held the 2008 general election soon after.

In the wake of the assassination, the PPP swept the largest number of seats in the National Assembly and brought in the then recently-widowed Zardari as the party’s co-chairman. Yousuf Raza Gilani took oath as the prime minister in an emotionally charged session of the National Assembly and Zardari later took office as the country’s president.

With assassinations, military coups, corruption allegations and much more leading the way for Pakistan’s nascent, shaky democracy, the handing over of power to a caretaker set-up is a key step forward in a smooth transition from one democratically-elected civilian government to another, marking an important chapter in the country’s political history.

— Research and text by Saher Baloch


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Comments (17) Closed

Abdur Razzaque Mar 24, 2013 10:17am
Thanks to the peoples of Pakistan for their initial advancement towards the success of democracy. Thanks also goes to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and their eminent justices who showed their constant support and eagerness to save the bud of democracy from total destruction. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam with the belief and direct support of the then Indian Muslims of the Sub-continent. Only the introduction of the true Islamic ideology can secure and make Pakistan a strong one in the world. Allah (swt) is the most merciful and the praise worthy. Please enables the Pakistani society to bring the peace and tranquility back along with the spirit of true Islam.
Fahad Mar 24, 2013 10:34am
the big question is to what benefit? 40% of the population votes and 50% forms a government. So in effect 20% of the population 'elects' a family owned (dictator style) party in the context of democracy. Sounds like a achivement. Let us celebrate!
Khanm Mar 24, 2013 12:08pm
Fail to understand why are we making such a big deal of completing five years.. Our military have ruled ten years or more
Syed Ahmed Mar 24, 2013 02:13pm
Elections 1970, led to a situation where Bhutto would have to give up power and allow Sheikh Mujib to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but that was not acceptable to Bhutto. His feudal'istic gestures and fiery speeches were not mere rhetoric, but the actions of a desperate man vying for power at any cost, whether in a united or divided Pakistan. First he raised the most ludicrous demand that he be made an equal shareholder in power. This was totally unconstitutional and undemocratic. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman obviously rejected this silly demand, Mr. Bhutto responded: udhar tum, idhar hum - you there (in East Pakistan), we here (in West Pakistan). In a public meeting held in Lahore on 28th February 1971, Mr. Bhutto had hurled a threat to the applause of the predominantly Punjabi audience that he would break the legs of any MNA from West Pakistan who dared to attend the Dhaka session of the Assembly and would not let such MNAs return to West Pakistan. These words were loaded with sinister meaning as future events were to expose. Gen Ayub Khan
Agha Ata (USA) Mar 24, 2013 03:00pm
I hope what this article says is true. And that it is not an accident, like its accidental president.
Iftikhar baloch Mar 24, 2013 03:42pm
imran khan should be made prime minister, like if you are with me!
Essa Mar 24, 2013 05:03pm
By completing this five years Pakistan has completed five year of corruption, human right scarcity , terrorism uprising and many other awful and shameful things, which we as Pakistani youth need to action about.
YM Mar 24, 2013 05:44pm
twisting history without really understanding the issue
Pacifist World Mar 24, 2013 06:11pm
Noam Chomsky said that America had bought the elite class in Pakistan. And the elite class is none other than the ruling class. Almost every politician in Pakistan is for sale. Wickedness and killing of good and innocent people will continue... until the crop of injustice is ready to be cut...... Wake up O you poor people of Pakistan!.... Guillotine those wicked rulers, like the Frenchmen did in their revolution,....... only then you can have peace and prosperity.....
Sultan Mar 24, 2013 09:23pm
Dead wrong. As we did not separate state from religion look where we are. Making a country in the name of religion is a failed policy from an Islamic viewpoint as apart from the Israeli's who have shown its possible. Why? As they follow there religion faithfully and without agendas unlike us. See where they are and we are. Please read a book called Waiting for Allah written by Christina Lamb years ago and you will glimpse why things are the way they are. Its an eye opener as she predicted all of this she had a crystal ball. Pakistan is still waiting btw. And God isnt not coming eitherto save it as he gave up a long time ago.. May God save Islam from Pakistanis. We will destroy whats left of it.
Cyrus Howell Mar 25, 2013 12:29am
There is no mercy in Pakistan. There is only mercy for those who can pay cash.
Akil Akhtar Mar 25, 2013 03:21am
Bhutto also completed his term and elections were held. The only problem was he rigged the elections and same is feared this time around. the real achievement would be if a new party wins and is allowed to form the govt peacefully.
Shahryar Shirazi Mar 25, 2013 05:55am
I want to write some thing nasty, but know that the auditor will not approve of it. It is common sense that these 5 years have been a mess. Enjoy democracy. Honestly, I don't think this "D" word is for people like us ...
Guru Mar 25, 2013 10:24am
Just to add, you can change a civilian ruler who is messing up, you cannot change an army general who is messing up.
Abdur Razzaque Mar 25, 2013 08:44pm
To find out the destination or an ideology of a country,we do not need to quote from another unauthenticated source. Every writer or a historians are always influenced or inspired by their own perspective of their own various natures of their country. In order to get a complete history of Pakistan, we need to dig out our own heritage,culture and ideological values. We should not compare it with the others. Our ideology and the civilization is the symbol of our pride. Look at the Moorish civilization in Spain,in the Middle-East,Ottoman Turkey and elsewhere! Even in modern age there are lot of examples we can show that is still based on the spirit of Islam. If you me and others like us do not pay attention on ourselves, who gonna do that? Our soil,our land is our pride and it is above of all comparison. Let us try to love our own people,our own heritage. if we can make it we will be champion in all ways. Let us learn more about our people and our own civilization.Based on that we can compare ourselves with others in order to make our ones more better. if we fail to do so it will be a total destruction of our owns. May Allah (swt) enables us to learn more and more about ourselves and inspires us to walk on their right way. Amin!!
Akil Akhtar Mar 25, 2013 10:24pm
Rightly said, elite of a country decide the fate of that country. Sadly our elite seem to have no interest in Pakistan. All of them have bases overseas and only come to Pakistan to llot and plunder. On the flip side the elite in india are the most nationalist, even more than the general public, which is reflected in their media and films and politics.
Shirin Mar 26, 2013 01:04am
Finally, the military leadership "permitted" the civilian government to finish its term ..... and that too despite pleading from all sectors of the population for a military takeover.... things must be really bad, eh?.