Democracy’s uncertain future | Pakistan Today

Democracy’s uncertain future

Beleaguered beyond belief

Pakistan can be described as a democratic country with an elected government that functions under a more or less liberal democratic constitution. The 18th and 20th constitutional amendments have expanded the scope of provincial autonomy and reduced the powers of the president to the minimum. The National Finance Commission Award that became operational in 2010 has made the provinces more viable financially.

Despite these positive developments, there is also a downside of working of democracy in Pakistan. It manifests the weaknesses of the transitional democracy — from a military-dominated political order to elected civilian governance.

The goal of turning Pakistan into a full democracy may not materialise because it sets the high standards of constitutional liberalism, equal citizenship, civil and political rights on a non-discriminatory basis, and the rule of law. Pakistan faces five major challenges on way to achieving these ideals.

The first challenge to the future of democracy comes from the people and groups who want to use the democratic procedures and elections as a means to implementing their peculiar political ideas or a hard-line puritanical Islamic order. For them, democracy has instrumental relevance and elections provide an established way to access power. Once political power is achieved, they can use the electoral legitimacy to turn Pakistan into a state based on their ideological framework. There is no commitment to democracy as an ideal but it is viewed as a means to something else.

The second major threat to genuineness of democracy in Pakistan comes from the non-elected state institutions like the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary. The bureaucracy has often supported or worked with other non-elected institutions to expand its authority over the elected institutions and the people. The military has traditionally undermined the prospects of democracy in Pakistan through its direct and indirect rule. The military’s direct and indirect rule and the attempts to restructure the political system to its satisfaction and cooption of a section of the political elite helped to entrench the political power of the military. It did not solve the problem of fragility of political institution that enabled the military to assume power. The military has been out of power since 2008 but it continues to be a powerful political player from the sideline.

The judiciary was supportive of the military’s expanded role in the past. It endorsed the direct assumption of power by the military on all four occasions. Since the restoration of the present Chief Justice and other judges in 2009, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have engaged in a high pace judicial activism and have built pressure on the elected parliament and the elected federal government. The comments of the judges, as published in the media, have political implications in the politically divided political context. The Chief Justice has argued more than once that the parliament is not the supreme institutions and that the Supreme Court has an overriding power with reference to constitution. This has created uncertainty about what the parliament can or cannot do, especially after one prime minister was convicted by the Supreme Court on contempt of court and sent home. The key issue is that democracy requires institutional balance and restraint rather than one state institution dominating all others, especially the elected ones. The confrontation between the elected executive and non-elected judiciary is not a good omen for democracy.

Unrestrained competition among the political players is the third threat to democracy. Though all important political parties are in power either at the federal level or in provinces, the focus is on the PPP-led federal government. The PPP and its allies are struggling for political survival and attempt to hold on to power by all possible means. The opposition parties, especially the PMLN, are often engaged in a free-for-all effort to dislodge the federal government. As the PMLN cannot replace the PPP-led federal government in the National Assembly, it has attempted to resort to street agitation to achieve this objective. It also hopes that the Supreme Court or the military will remove this government.

The Punjab Chief Minister (PMLN) has openly preached defiance of and street agitation against the federal government on electric power shortages. The open support to culture of violence is a dangerous development because, in the long run, street agitation and violence undermine democracy.

The fourth major threat to democracy is religious extremism and terrorism that can cause the break-up of the society. Religious extremism is not confined to far and remote areas of Pakistan. It is publicly practiced on the mainland. The killing of people by a frenzied mob on some religious account is not an unusual phenomenon in Pakistan. The religious minorities are targeted by extremist societal groups. Islamic sectarian conflict, especially the killings of Shias, is more common now.

The most unfortunate aspect of such extremist incidents is that the political and religious leaders shy away from publicly condemning the groups that take the responsibility for such acts. They criticise violence and sectarianism only in general terms, arguing that Islam does not sanction such violence. Religious and cultural intolerance and terrorism are the antithesis of democracy.

The fifth major threat to democracy comes from poor governance by the federal and provincial governments. The popular support for democracy is bound to decline if the democratic governments do not deliver services and security to the people. The governments need to adopt policy-measures to reduce socio-economic pressures on the common people and assure them security of their life and property. All governments have performed poorly, causing alienation among the common people.

Pakistan’s economy is in real trouble. The opposition leaders talk of the troubled economy only to criticise the federal government. They have no concrete ideas to suggest solutions. They are also not prepared to adopt a joint strategy to cope with economic challenges. The Islamic parties and some of the mainstream political parties are talking of tough disposition towards the western countries which will isolate the federal government and make it impossible to salvage the economy.

Pakistan is currently facing deep-rooted structural problems that can cause a total collapse of the political system or it may function only at the minimum level. All political parties and state institutions need to work together within a democratic constitutional framework to address these problems. If the current power struggle continues unabated, neither the present democratic order nor an authoritarian or technocratic arrangement can salvage the situation.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.


  1. parveen wasi said:

    It is the very logical and concise analysis on curent political situation.

  2. Aftab Kenneth Wilson said:

    Sir I totally agree with what you penned down in your article. Now what to do about both print and electronic media who has also become party in this whole mess-up. I daily watch all leading tv channels (talk shows) and only end-up with frustration. We daily see same characters as guests. We really need people like you and many others who have same approach in talk-shows. Dr. Hasan Askri Sahib keep writing and educating the masses, thank you.

  3. ASIM said:

    I disagree with you that pakistan is a democratic country; democracy means "government of the people by the people for the people". In pakistan its one class which is the elite class ruling pakistan supported by many elements including some members of the media. Pakistan can not make progress unless these are overthrown and taken to task by THE PEOPLE. Why pakistan is not a welfare state like western countries? I fee sorry for the educated people who support such a shame democracy

    • Wafa said:

      There is not doubt that Pakistan is a democratic country. but it is partial democracy…complete democracy is rarely found in any country as per my knowledge…everywhere there are black sheep, they create hurdles in the way of democracy. we should be optimistic and should perform our duty well instead of blaming others.

  4. Ch Piran Dita said:

    Gov of the people, for the people by the people = Democracy.

    Askari sb please at least talk the truth. this is a fraud not democracy.

  5. ali said:

    Hasan Askari has got it wrong again. Bad governance and the continuation of USA's war on terror is the primary reason for our downfall. He is blaming everyone except the PPP govt.

    • wafa said:

      well…poor governance and lack of public accountability are the main causes..because good fences make good relations with others.

  6. ali said:

    here "Pakistan’s economy is in real trouble. The opposition leaders talk of the troubled economy only to criticise the federal government. They have no concrete ideas to suggest solutions."

    proves my point. He is blaming the opposition and Islamic parties for economic woes. he cant see the corruption of the PPP govt.

    • sane voice said:

      Is corruption really bad for economy? If yes, then study economics or at least don't cry for corruption. It's a slogan which has always been raised to dismiss the elected governments in the past.

  7. A Shahid said:

    The biggest and the only threat to Democracy stems from the endemic corruption and peculation of the political class. All other factors simply roll in to fill in the political vacuum created by such rife graft by the elected representatives. Pakistan will continue to have a dysfunctional and crony democracy hurtling towards disaster unless a clean and efficient executive takes power but this is unlikely to be the case in near future due to deficiencies in the ballot system and the rampant illiteracy of the electorate.

  8. Max said:

    I agree with Professor Askari's analysis, and just a footnote to his well articulated argument. Democracy is a culture and not simple institutional arrangement or their functioning. We are unfortunately too far from that true democratic spirit. There is a need for complete "U" turn. But it is easy to say than doing it. We have strangled ourselves into too many complications, and there is no easy way out.

  9. ammad javed khan said:

    Agreed.The basis for democracy stems from rule of law and alike moral ethics.The political class has always tried to degenerate all such values by hook or by crook and were as busy as bee to engineer a new milieu capable of promoting their susceptible agendas thus augmenting the fragility to whole system.The current bill of contempt of court to grant impunity to prime minister and other ruling class is a thread to same process.Hence to alter the scheme a concrete and solid framework is the need of hour.Like enaction of laws to abolish tenancy,limiting the power of military to intervene(pragmatic mechanism),institutional balance and rule of law etc.

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