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A milestone for Pakistan’s shaky democracy

March 24, 2013

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