Pakistan’s journey to democratic underdevelopment
In many ways, Pakistan presents a fascinating study of democratic development or underdevelopment, during its 72 years of existence. Its history has been blotted by four martial laws, three of them prolonged ones that nearly covered half of the nation’s life.
With the occasion of Pakistan’s Defence Day recently passed, it is prudent to analyse the major role the army has played in Pakistan’s political evolution. In 1947, when Pakistan came into being, there existed hardly any broad-based political parties that represented the masses. Pakistan was created through a movement by the inspiring leadership of Mr. M A Jinnah in which, ironically, the Muslims of India played a critical role. After Jinnah’s early demise, politics in Pakistan took a turn for the worse.
Pakistan had suffered multiple crises, especially during the early period of its inception, starting from the communal mass killings on both sides of the newly created India-Pakistan border, which led to the influx of millions of refugees pouring into Pakistan. Furthermore, the skirmishes in Kashmir that led to the 1948 short war heightened the animosity between the neighbors. And these factors, as well as the lack of a strong administrative structure meant the onus of handling these crises mostly fell on the armed forces.
In sharp contrast to political and other institutions, the Pakistan military was a strong and professional organization that had been trained by the British. Similarly, the bureaucracy was competent and experienced. Taking advantage of these weaknesses, in 1958, the army’s commander–in–chief, General Ayub Khan, took power.
Only since 2008 has there been continuity in civilian rule with the two major political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), alternating in holding power. It was not until 2016, when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf under the leadership of Imran Khan, broke their hold.
Civilian rule has been generally marked by governance failings and accusations of widespread corruption. In fact, Khan led his party to victory on the very slogan of fighting corruption.
For three generations, the Bhuttos have retained the leadership of the PPP. Similarly, Nawaz Sharif dominated PML-N and since his arrest and disqualification, his brother Shahbaz Sharif is the leader of the opposition and his daughter Maryam Nawaz is the Vice-President of the party.
The Pakistani leadership in the past has been ignoring an under-performing economy and placing excessive reliance on foreign assistance.
Though it is not unusual, even in mature democracies, that several members of the same family hold power like America’s Bush's or Kennedy's, they held these positions on merit and through genuine elections. In Pakistan it is not necessarily so, and thus weakens democracy and gives the military and other institutions the opportunity to fill power vacuums.
This factor has largely led to the PPP’s downfall. After the last elections in 2018, PPP’s power is now only confined to the province of Sindh which is a huge let down for a party that had a comfortable majority at the federal level and in all major provinces not so long ago.
Regrettably, the contribution of the PTI government in strengthening democratic institutions has been disappointing. PM Khan feels more comfortable sharing decision-making with the military leadership than building consensus on critical policy issues in parliament. As a consequence, the parliament and its important committees have been pushed in the background. And the deliberations in the parliament on serious national issues- foreign policy, security issues and the economy are generally perfunctory. Moreover, contradictions between foreign and domestic policies have given rise to tensions. These could be overcome provided the politicians and other state institutions earnestly promote and strengthen the democratic order.
The Pakistani leadership in the past has been ignoring an under-performing economy and placing excessive reliance on foreign assistance. This has resulted in low economic growth and high inflation. Hopefully, the current IMF program that has forced Pakistan to adopt a strict fiscal and monetary regime will assist in steering the economy on the right course.
Without sustained growth of 7% and above, Pakistan’s policy targets will be unachievable. Even at the foreign policy level, the adverse affects of low economic growth were apparent in the differential treatment of major nations in the recent India-Pakistan crisis on Kashmir. There are also genuine fears that prolonged confrontation with India on the Kashmir issue and nuclear rivalry could further depress the economy and also slow down political development.
A continuous rise in population growth is closely related to the distribution of resources and economic growth. Pakistan, at its present rate of population growth is expected to be the fourth most populous country in the world with highly adverse consequences for its economy and political stability.
Despite these serious challenges, what gives reason for optimism is the resilience of the people, their ingenuity and ability to overcome crisis and contribute towards building a better, safer and more prosperous Pakistan.