The failure of democracy to take roots in Pakistan has often been equated with military dictatorship. While this is not entirely untrue, and Pakistan has indeed spent more than 1/3 of the years since Independence under martial law, the picture is not quite so simplistic. It has been argued in the past that a failure of parliamentary governance, and the corruption and incompetence of political leaders have meant that the democratic system lost all credibility in the eyes of the people and its place was taken by military rulers. This account however tends to ignore some of the complexities surrounding Pakistani politics. However, the failure of democracy in Pakistan cannot be blamed on the army alone. It must be studied in two distinct segments- first, it is necessary to analyse the conditions that allowed the military to come to power, and then, to see what factors allowed it to sustain itself and return to power repeatedly.

It is not enough to see the military as simply stepping into the shoes of incompetent politicians. It is imperative that we ask two questions: how were they able to manipulate the political circumstances and come to power? More importantly, why did the people come to trust the army more than their political leaders, as demonstrated by the relief felt by most ordinary Pakistanis following the overthrow of Nawaz Sharif?

Is it historical?

Some of the answers to these questions can be found in the political uncertainty and trauma surrounding the creation of Pakistan. The first problem that the new nation state had to grapple with was one of an ‘identity crisis’. It had to confirm this identity by establishing central authority over regions separated by miles of Indian territory. This identity was dealt a further blow by the secession of East Pakistan to form the state of Bangladesh in 1971. There were worrying economic indicators in the post Partition phase that suggested the possibility of social unrest combined with grave political consequences for relations between the centre and the provinces. There was rampant inflation, shortage of food grains and other essential commodities, smuggling and black marketeering.

Economic issues

There were also huge economic imbalances as well and as for any leader to establish himself, he would have to tackle these, and not just through IMF/World Bank loans, but more profound economic adjustments. There was a huge difference between government revenue and expenditure, industry was poorly developed and the economy was heavily dependent on agricultural exports. Public institutions were used to disperse patronage and the low level of public education hampered the growth of a skilled workforce.

Centre-province dichotomy

The tensions between the centre and the provinces can be seen as a significant player in upsetting the political rhythm of the new state. The centre proceeded to extract resources from the provinces in order to divert them into defence procurements. But the provinces, which were facing massive socio-economic dislocation were averse to surrendering their limited financial resources. This centre-province dichotomy was magnified by the fact that the Muslim League, organizationally was the weakest in those areas that now formed Pakistan. This meant, that unlike the Congress in India, the Muslim League lacked a clear support base that it could use to consolidate its own position and those of other political institutions.

Did Jinnah have a role to play in all this?

It has also been argued that these structural difficulties were buttressed by the fact that civic culture was slow to develop in Pakistan. The blame for this must be placed on the doorstep of Jinnah and his supporters who failed to see the value of creating a support base. Thus, the public was uneducated about concepts such as political accountability, which are key to the healthy functioning of democratic institutions. In the early years there was a fear of giving power to the people, lest the masses use to agitate or demand an overthrowing of certain entrenched forces. There was also a greater fear that the political system would be dominated by East Pakistan.

While Jinnah had envisaged Pakistan as a constitutional, parliamentary democracy imbued with Muslim values, he did not live long enough to see his vision become a reality. But even Jinnah, did not always behave democratically. He controlled all reins of power and was the Governor General, the President of the Muslim League as well as the head of the Constituent Assembly. His personality and personal authority were enough to silence any challengers to his position. This concentration of power created a dangerous precedent for the political future of the country.

Growing power of the military-bureaucratic elite

These factors created a backdrop for a steady flow of power towards the executive and away from the legislature. It was clear that Pakistan would have to make certain tough choices, and given the economic and political turmoil, it would be natural to fall back on the civil bureaucracy and the military to try and restore order. The military was already performing a number of tasks that the police, the administration or the courts ought to have been doing. Hence, this imperceptible shift, occurring gradually over the first decade after Independence seemed to have a natural trajectory of its own. This small elite of cadre of educated civil servants had little interest in conducting elections, and the months following Jinnah’s death were chaotic. Two bureaucrats- Ghulam Muhammad and Iskander Mirza pulled the strings behind the scenes, as Pakistan lurched from one political crisis, and one Prime Minister to another. The former displayed his maneuverability and influence by dismissing the Bengali Prime Minster Khwaja Nazimuddin and replacing him with Muhammad Ali Bogra, a more pliant candidate. But it was judicial complicity with the executive that determined the fate of Pakistan’s first constitutional crisis. The Supreme Court’s 1955 judgement and the principles underlying it can be viewed as a direct pre cursor to military intervention.

Constitution making was delayed and the unrepresentative nature of the Constituent Assembly allowed the executive to bypass it repeatedly. The representative system lost all credibility with the failure of Pakistan’s first parliament. Here, it must be pointed out that mere institutional weaknesses alone could not have led to military domination and it is rather simplistic to contrast the institutional coherence of the military with the disorganized nature of the political parties. What took place was a gradual erosion of trust, and the influence of a number of domestic, regional and international factors that allowed the military to come to power. Unable to solve the daunting tasks facing the country, it was only natural that the civil bureaucracy and the military came to be seen as a bastion of stability. The dominance that the bureaucracy and the military had established over the political system in the years preceding 1959 is a clear indicator that there was no real ‘power vacuum’. It is more realistic to see the decade after 1947 as one of failed parliamentary governance prompted by huge structural constraints and a bureaucratic-military nexus that while controlling the political process, did not have political legitimacy, and hence needed to tear down the façade of parliamentary governance in order to attain it. Thus, the ‘crisis of authority’ that Pakistan faced was also largely manipulated by those benefited most from it.

Pakistan and the rest of the world

A glance at Pakistan’s foreign policy over this period will illustrate this point. In the immediate aftermath of independence, Pakistan had no friends in the international arena and was shunned by the ‘Big Three’- the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. But in the post 1960s phase we see greater US involvement in Pakistan, and increase in foreign direct investment and increased sale of military equipment. Already, from the mid 1950s, Pakistan had become increasingly dependent on foreign aid. As military expenditure increased, the army establishment was concomitantly inflated. A report titled ‘A Summary Presentation of the (US) Mutual Security Programme’ in 1957 labelled the army as ‘the greatest single stabilising force in the country’.

How did the military consolidate itself?

The above account would seek to explain the structural factors that allowed the military to gain a foothold in Pakistani politics. But it does not entirely explain why it was able to flourish. To do so, we must look at how various military rulers sought to undermine democratic structures, how civilian governments did the same, and hence lost credibility and finally how the presence of the army benefited certain segments of Pakistani society- powerful, landed and influential, whose vested interests would then help the military to prolong its grip over the country.

The principal legacy of the first military dictator, Ayub Khan was one of increased state centralization. He argued: ‘The Western type parliamentary democracy cannot be imposed on the people of Pakistan’. He justified by this referring to the patron-client or clan based ties that determined the nature of relationships. His ‘Basic Democracies’ order was undemocratic in both letter and spirit. Neither the industrial labour force, nor the urban educated intelligentsia was given any stake in the new order, and the real aim was to garner support from rural constituencies. Placing local political processes under central rule was a dangerous move and further alienated the provinces. By the time he gave up power, Ayub Khan had created a close personalized network of civil servants, top military officials and wealthy urban families.

Even in the post 1971 phase, little changed and the structural imbalances of the earlier period were still visible. Military rule had gradually reduced the potential for genuine grassroots political party organization. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was never really developed a base for itself and was sustained for long by the charisma of leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The tenure of Bhutto began amidst much optimism. There was hope that real democracy would return to Pakistan. He had both legitimacy and power and the army had been recently humiliated in the 1971 war. But over time, it became apparent that his manifesto- a heady mix of socialist and Islamic idealism was little more than an illusion. He began to use the PPP as a vehicle for his own personal ambitions. His control over the party was absolute and he incarcerated those who disagreed with him. He was also chiefly responsible for the politicization of the civil service. The question of provincial autonomy was dealt in a high handed manner, and provoked much resentment. His regime constantly relied on heavy handed tactics including brutally suppressing any opposition to his plans for nationalization in 1972. He created a paramilitary force, the Federal Security Force (FSF) to intimidate his opponents and rig elections. While many would consider this hanging of Bhutto to be the final death knell for democracy in Pakistani, in truth, democracy was already in serious trouble before that.

Civilian rule: recipe for disaster?

Further phases of civilian rule following the death of Zia have been characterised by rampant corruption. Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto introduced little reform and ran up huge foreign debts. They also accumulated a great deal of personal wealth, lived in opulent luxury and are now facing corruption charges in exile. Over time, the role of the military had also begun to overshadow the fliexibility that any civilian adminstration had. Sharif forced his chief of army staff General Jehangir Karamat to resign, but was then removed by his successor Gen Pervez Musharraf. Moreover, the inability of both Sharif and Benazir to create durable party structures for their respective parties meant that civilian rule would always remain under military threat. Further, civilian governments would have to deal with heavy debt and defence burdens, the demands of political survival and an overbearing military establishment that was working at odds with it.

There have also been close links between the military establishment and the religious right e.g. Zia made calculated appeals to various fundamentalist groups in order to seek their support. The situation has changed quite dramatically since 9/11 but in the past, the military and its intelligence branches did not conceal their links with certain ‘jihadi’ groups.

The failure of civilian government apart, the army has remained sensitive to the emergence of any alternative power centre that could challenge its autonomy and dominance. Once in power, the army has been reluctant to let go of it. A crucial part of their tenacity has also been their ability to sell themselves to the people of Pakistan, and most importantly to the international community has being indispensable for the stability of the country. Keeping in mind Pakistan’s sensitive geo-strategic location, internal stability would be considered a prized virtue by superpowers willing to overlook the absence of democracy.

The landed elite

A key factor in sustaining the power of the military has also been its nexus with the landed classes. The feudal landowners have often been denounced as being ‘pretentious, self interested, unprincipled, reactionary hypocrites who constitute a huge obstacle to social and democratic development’. The landlords remain the most powerful indigenous class in Pakistan and predominate in political leadership. Members of the bureaucracy and army often owe their origins to this class. Those bureaucrats and military officers who don’t have large land holdings, tend to acquire them very soon. The big landlord lobby is directly and firmly entrenched in the Pakistani state. Landlords are free from income tax, they enjoy high subsidies and equally high guarantees from the state for their produce. There was an extraordinary ‘land reform in reverse’ in 1953-53 when landlords, who claimed that they had left substantial portions of their land back in India, were then allotted land that that previously given to landless peasants following Independence.

In many areas of Pakistan the rural elite carries out a number of tasks that elsewhere would the responsibility of courts, police and other administrative bodies. That they have considerable say in political matters can be seen by the fact that there is still no tax on agriculture despite huge pressure from the IMF to that effect. Many have even blocked government efforts and economic and social developments in their areas, believing that this would upset the prevalent power structure. Ayub Khan’s land reforms of 1959 achieved little and most feudal landowners either managed to get around the law, exploited illiterate peasants, or made liberal use of the provisions allowing them to hold on to their hunting grounds and orchards.

Apart from their obvious wealth and power, the ability of these landowners to adjust to various political dispensations has stood them in good stead. It means that they are never far removed from seat of power for too long. When Bhutto’s ‘Bread, Clothing and Shelter’ slogan in the 1970s threatened them the decided to join the PPP and influence it from within. After Bhutto’s hanging in 1985, they switched sides again. Their wealth, patronage and the substantial areas over which they have control means that their support remains crucial to the military.

what about Islam?

The role of Islam in the democratic process is one that has been the focus of attention in recent times. In order to examine the factors that have hampered the growth of a liberal democracy, it is imperative that we must examine the religious underpinnings of the Pakistani state. It is interesting that in comparison to various other Islamic states, Pakistan seems to have enjoyed comparatively free elections over the last 50 years or so. But its prolonged periods of martial law have brought into question the effect of religion on the country’s political structure. Clearly, as a doctrine Islam presents no barriers to participatory politics. However, it is more contentious whether Islam can co-exist with certain tenets fundamental to a liberal democracy especially with regard to the rights of minorities. There is a clash between the notion that sovereignty lies with the people and the Islamic notion that the ultimate authority is God’s word. So a specifically Islamic mandate will not seek to be expressed through free political association or elected assemblies. Some have argued that Islamic parties advocate democracy as a means rather then an end, often to dislodge certain leaders from power (the Jama’at-I-Islami in the 1950s when Ayub Khan was in power) and that when in power, it is unlikely that they would give much space to their political opponents. However, it is worth noting that Pakistan’s extremist Islamic parties have consistently and legally participated in the democratic process when available.