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Pakistan’s Ongoing Struggle for Democracy

by Mohammed Ahmed

Since gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan has faced significant challenges in establishing and sustaining a democratic system of governance. The country’s political landscape has been characterized by a cyclical struggle between democratic aspirations and authoritarian rule, marked by frequent military coups, political instability, and institutional weaknesses. This article provides an in-depth analysis of Pakistan’s ongoing battle to achieve and maintain democracy.

Historical Context and Early Challenges

Independence and Early Governance

Pakistan was created in 1947 as a result of the partition of British India, driven by the demand for a separate homeland for Muslims. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, envisioned a democratic state with a constitution that ensured equal rights for all citizens. However, the early years of Pakistan were fraught with challenges, including the partition’s humanitarian crisis, integration of princely states, and political and economic instability.

Constitutional Developments and Political Instability

The early political landscape of Pakistan was marked by efforts to draft a constitution that balanced the interests of various regions and communities. The first constitution was adopted in 1956, establishing Pakistan as an Islamic republic with a parliamentary system. However, political instability, frequent changes in government, and power struggles hindered effective governance. In 1958, the military, led by General Ayub Khan, seized power, marking the first of several military coups in Pakistan’s history.

Military Rule and Authoritarianism

Ayub Khan’s Regime (1958-1969)

General Ayub Khan’s regime introduced a period of military-bureaucratic rule, with significant economic and infrastructural development but limited political freedom. Ayub Khan introduced the Basic Democracies system, an attempt to create a controlled form of local governance, while consolidating power at the center. His rule faced growing opposition, culminating in widespread protests and political unrest, leading to his resignation in 1969.

Yahya Khan and the 1971 Crisis

General Yahya Khan succeeded Ayub Khan but faced a significant crisis with the secessionist movement in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, driven by demands for autonomy and recognition of linguistic and cultural identity, resulted in a brutal conflict and the eventual independence of Bangladesh. This period highlighted the deep-seated political and ethnic divisions within Pakistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Civilian Rule (1971-1977)

The return to civilian rule under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971 marked a significant shift in Pakistan’s political landscape. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) pursued socialist policies, nationalizing key industries and introducing land reforms. Bhutto also oversaw the drafting of the 1973 Constitution, which established a parliamentary system with a strong federal structure. However, Bhutto’s tenure was marred by political repression and allegations of authoritarianism, leading to his overthrow by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977.

Zia-ul-Haq’s Martial Law (1977-1988)

General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law regime introduced a period of stringent military rule and Islamization. Zia’s policies included the introduction of Sharia laws, Hudood Ordinances, and a significant expansion of the role of religion in state affairs. His regime also saw suppression of political dissent, media censorship, and manipulation of the judiciary. Despite promises of elections, Zia remained in power until his death in a plane crash in 1988.

Return to Democracy and Continued Struggles

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif Eras (1988-1999)

The death of Zia-ul-Haq paved the way for a return to civilian rule, with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif emerging as key political figures. Benazir Bhutto, elected as the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), alternated in power during the 1990s. This period was marked by political rivalry, allegations of corruption, and economic challenges. The instability culminated in another military coup in 1999, led by General Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf’s Military Rule (1999-2008)

General Pervez Musharraf’s regime initially promised reforms and economic development. However, his rule was characterized by centralization of power, suspension of the constitution, and manipulation of the political system. Musharraf’s tenure faced increasing domestic and international pressure for a return to democracy, leading to elections in 2008 and the restoration of civilian rule.

Challenges in Contemporary Democracy

Civil-Military Relations

One of the most significant challenges to democracy in Pakistan has been the persistent influence of the military in politics. Even during periods of civilian rule, the military has retained substantial power, particularly in areas of security, foreign policy, and internal affairs. The military’s role in shaping political outcomes, including interventions and support for particular political parties, continues to undermine democratic processes.

Political Instability and Governance Issues

Political instability, characterized by frequent changes in government, coalition politics, and power struggles, has hindered effective governance. Issues such as corruption, lack of transparency, and weak institutional frameworks have further exacerbated governance challenges. Political parties often engage in confrontational politics, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term stability and development.

Judicial Independence and Rule of Law

Ensuring judicial independence and upholding the rule of law are critical for a functioning democracy. However, Pakistan’s judiciary has faced challenges of political interference, inconsistent application of the law, and delays in the judicial process. Efforts to strengthen judicial independence and accountability have seen varying degrees of success.

Electoral Reforms and Democratic Participation

Free and fair elections are fundamental to democracy. Pakistan has made strides in improving its electoral processes, including the establishment of an independent Election Commission. However, issues such as electoral fraud, voter intimidation, and disenfranchisement remain. Enhancing democratic participation and ensuring credible elections are ongoing challenges.

Civil Society and Media Freedom

A vibrant civil society and free media are essential for democratic governance. Pakistan’s civil society organizations and media outlets have played crucial roles in advocating for democratic reforms and holding authorities accountable. However, they often face threats, censorship, and legal restrictions. Ensuring freedom of expression and protecting civil society activists are vital for democratic consolidation.

Economic Development and Social Justice

Economic development and social justice are integral to sustaining democracy. Pakistan faces significant socio-economic challenges, including poverty, inequality, and inadequate public services. Addressing these issues requires comprehensive policies that promote inclusive growth, social welfare, and equitable distribution of resources.

Recent Developments and Future Prospects

Democratic Resilience

Despite the challenges, Pakistan’s democracy has shown resilience. The peaceful transitions of power in recent elections and the increasing engagement of youth and civil society in political processes are positive signs. Reforms aimed at strengthening democratic institutions and processes are crucial for future stability.

Key Reforms and Initiatives

Several reforms and initiatives are needed to reinforce Pakistan’s democratic foundations. These include:

  • Electoral Reforms: Enhancing the transparency, credibility, and inclusiveness of electoral processes.
  • Judicial Reforms: Ensuring judicial independence, efficiency, and accountability.
  • Strengthening Institutions: Building robust and transparent institutions that can effectively implement policies and deliver public services.
  • Civil-Military Balance: Defining clear boundaries between civilian and military roles in governance.
  • Promoting Social Justice: Implementing policies that address socio-economic disparities and promote social welfare.


Pakistan’s journey towards democracy has been complex and fraught with challenges. The persistent struggle between democratic aspirations and authoritarian tendencies reflects the intricate socio-political dynamics of the country. While significant obstacles remain, the resilience of Pakistan’s civil society, the commitment to democratic reforms, and the engagement of its citizens provide hope for a more stable and democratic future. Achieving Jinnah’s vision of a democratic, inclusive, and just Pakistan requires sustained efforts, political will, and collective action from all sectors of society.

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