With most modern nations, the history of the creation of Pakistan has dictated the very specific course of its policy. The two elements that characterize current Pakistani politics the dominance of its armed forces and the weakness of its main parties go back to the nature of its partition from India.
The movement of the Muslim League that led to Pakistan was based on the idea of partition in the theory of the two nations. The theory affirmed that the Hindus and the Muslims were two nations and that they could not coexist in a democratic and united India. But it was a political consequence recognition by League leaders that the interests of Muslims could not be adequately represented as a result of a united India that led to this theory.
In the partition, Pakistan felt short of the British and the Hindus. He was left with resources and smaller than he had planned. It was considered vulnerable, given that its western and eastern parts were on both sides of India. In his attempt to define himself after 1947, he chose the threat of India as a key pillar. This has led to his army being the most dominant institution in the country.
The Pakistan army has been systematically responsible for the destabilization of democracy. Each of the democratic governments of Pakistan between 1988 and 1999 was overthrown after a couple of years in power, three times with the President disbanding the government (since then this presidential power, granted by a military regime, has been eliminated) and once for a military coup in 1999. Crucial for each turnover, apparently, was public opinion against the titular political party. The charges against the ruling party were corruption and lack of government, but they were never fully prosecuted.
Popular opinion in Pakistan has oscillated between the army and democracy: after several years of each type of regime, due to unfulfilled expectations or perceived failures, public opinion has tended to tire of it and turn to the other. But after the failed Musharraf regime that ended in 2008, Pakistan seemed to have made a more solid change towards democracy. In a June 2016 Gallup poll, 84 percent of respondents said they preferred democracy to dictatorship. However, Sharif’s disbarment last month by the Supreme Court after a one-month hearing on his unexplained assets leaked by the Panama Papers was in part a response to popular opinion conviction that he was corrupt. army, on the other hand, continues to be considered not corrupt and efficient.
This brings us to a set of conventional knowledge that circulates in the democracy of Pakistan within the country, and that drives the public opinion about it: that politicians are entrenched, dynastic, feudal and corrupt; who participate in the patronage. This implies providing jobs and favors to the voters in exchange for votes. The idea is that the voters vote in blocks of biradiri (loose, clans and caste ties) that can be ‘bought’ by said clientelism.
It is worthwhile to see what the empirical evidence about Pakistan’s democracy tells us, in any case, about these wisdoms. At first glance, there seems to be a lot of competition in the elections in Pakistan. A total of 333 parties are currently registered with the Electoral Commission of Pakistan. But only six parties have more than ten seats in Parliament (out of a total of 342 seats) and eighteen parties have a seat or more.
Two parties are dominant: power has oscillated between the Muslim League of Pakistan – Nawaz (PML-N) and the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) in each successive period between 1988 and 1999, and again since 2008. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf emerged as the third largest party in the 2013 elections.
The parties in power have a pragmatic interest in the defense of tenure, and such, any resistance to new elections is as democratic as the demand to call new elections. Demand and resistance to early elections are driven by the struggle for power rather than the principle of democracy. The PTI considers that the leadership of the PML-N has been affected by a series of problems: the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, his responsibility in the courts and the visible division within the party on critical issues.
The problem with PTI is that it is still a lone fighter for a cause that other parties do not share. As time passes, the consensus would be that the elections will take place next year, on time. As there are contradictory evaluations of the performance of governments led by different parties, it will be fair for them to remain in power and complete their mandate and complete the projects that have begun.
In transitional democracies like Pakistan, completing functions fulfills two important functions: consolidating democracy and increasing the political consciousness of the electorate to judge the parties on the basis of performance. Voting may not resolve all political conflicts, but the quality of democracy is likely to improve with each successive election campaign.
Throughout Pakistan’s history, the ruling elite has failed to introduce reforms to uproot an entrenched tribal political structure and build strong democratic institutions in Pakistan. Any attempt to restrict the power of tribal and feudal actors would move away a critical base of support for Pakistan’s political parties, which would result in electoral ramifications. During the early 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to introduce agrarian reforms to curb the control of the ruling elite over state power but failed to go beyond the surface due to widespread opposition from different ruling circles.
On the other hand, civil society groups in Pakistan have not been able to induce the state to move towards changing the existing political structure. Civil society remains fragmented due to the shared interest of the rural and urban ruling elite in keeping it under control and undermining its organization and its possible influence. Similarly, the working class is too weak to introduce a social revolution that would overthrow the political structure dominated by feudalism.
The ruling elite of the country must realize that the existing political structure in Pakistan is only undermining the process of modernization and true democratization, which does not augur well for the country’s long-term future. Moreover, Washington and Beijing need to push Pakistan’s ruling elite towards modernization, since only a deeply transformed and progressive society that accepts democratic norms and values can truly welcome democracy.
Beyond the formal constitutional structure, the current political arrangements in Pakistan only strengthen the undemocratic mentality in the country. The next general election at the end of this year will be another example in which caste, ethnic and family interests will be completed to achieve power in the extension of true democracy and change. The recent partial elections in Punjab were another example in which the winning candidate only won because of his support base among various influential ethnic groups and other patronage links in the constituency. This only indicates that the upcoming elections will retain the same elite political groups and forces for power instead of empowering the masses in general by working for their lives and concerns.