A question that has spawned a great deal of rumination amongst students of South Asian politics is why democracy has failed to take root in Pakistan. At a general level, why has Pakistan suffered from periods of military rule -- under four different generals, three of whom were in power for close to a decade or more -- and why has its periods of democratic rule been marked with tenuousness and instability?
Before we can answer that question, it is first necessary to understand just what we mean by democracy. Within the political science literature on democracy and democratization, there remains a significant divide between those who favor minimalist definitions of democracy and those that argue for a more holistic conception of the term. The former tend to equate democratic rule with the holding of free and fair elections in which populations have a real choice of candidates, and an ability to either directly or indirectly vote for their rulers. The second group thinks of this as much too limiting; it is concerned not just with the ways in which a government comes to power, but also with the ways in a government exercises its power. For them, the mere holding of elections is not enough to qualify a country as government. It must, instead, be liberal in nature -- guarantee freedoms of speech, press and association, for instance.
While these definitional debates are useful, they can also be unwieldy and ultimately lose the forest for the trees. At bottom, a democratic system of government should connote limits to power. In other words, it entails checks and balances; governments and people in power must be held back from excesses not by their own goodwill or strength of character, but by institutions and rules which are enforced. Where exactly those red lines are drawn differs from system to system, but reasonable people can safely distinguish between countries where legitimate checks exist and those where they exist in name only.
If one accepts the definition I have laid out for democracy -- that it speaks to limits to power -- then it becomes clear that the military is far from the only actor that should be held culpable for Pakistan's democratic deficit. Pakistan's civil society, especially its political parties, have aided in Pakistan's tortured relationship with democracy.
The military in Pakistan is a fair but easy target. Its position within Pakistani society and politics has been well-described and detailed; I will limit myself to the most obvious and patently true claims here. First, it secured for itself a position of guardian-of-the-state by amplifying both the (very real) military threat India posed in the formative years of statehood, as well as its ability to adequately deal with that threat -- for all its bluster about one Muslim being the equal of ten Hindus in combat, the Pakistani military has never actually beaten India's in a war. Second, it has entrenched itself in the political and social life of the state with housing cooperatives, business ventures, academic appointments and other areas where the military, as an institution, simply does not belong. Third and most obviously, it has taken it upon itself to remove elected leaders from office any time those elected leaders either pose a threat to the institutional interests of the military, or cross the circumscribed bounds of appropriate conduct for politicians -- bounds drawn, quite naturally, by the military itself.
For these and other reasons, many analyses of Pakistan's failure to become a truly democratic state start and end with the military. It has been the most obvious impediment to representative government, and as such affords an easy target.
It would be remiss, however, to neglect to mention other responsible parties for Pakistan's democratic deficit. Uninformed and Manichean views often treat Pakistan's political parties as Davids taking on Goliath, unable to change the course of politics only because the military stands in its way. Such views are heavily misguided; Pakistan's political parties, with some exceptions, are as interested in democracy as a system of government as the military itself.
First, Pakistani mainstream political parties are highly personalist -- they exist less as instruments of democratic spirit than objects to be owned and molded by chiefs and party heads. The Pakistan People's Party, almost universally regarded as the country's biggest party, is an apt example. Formed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, it has never been headed by someone not related to the former Prime Minister -- when Bhutto was hanged in 1979, the party was transferred to his wife, and then his daughter, who in turn was assassinated in 2007, upon which the party was handed to her husband and then nineteen year-old son. The MQM, an ethnic-based party in urban Sindh, is more democratic in its inner workings but still considers the word of its exiled leader Altaf Hussain as quite literally the word of God. In fact, it requires party-members to sign the following oath, one which appears truly bizarre to outsiders:
I,... believing that Allah is here and watching over me, swearing by His book and my mother, take oath that I shall remain loyal to the MQM and Altaf Hussain for my whole life. I will not take part in any conspiracy, planning or action against MQM or Altaf Hussain and I will not maintain any link with anyone who is involved in any of the acts mentioned above. I swear by my mother that if any conspiracy against MQM or Altaf Hussain or any act harmful to them come into my knowledge, I shall immediately inform Altaf Hussain or other main leaders, even if the conspirator be my brother, sister, mother, father, any relative or friend...I swear that I will keep every secret of my party and regard it more precious than my life. I swear that I shall accept Altaf Hussain's decision as final in any matter and obey all his decisions. If I disobey any of his decisions, I must be regarded as a traitor. I swear that I have and I will have blind trust in party leader Altaf Hussain...May God help me to remain firm and loyal to the MQM.
Few mainstream Pakistani political parties hold internal elections -- the Jamaat-e-Islami is one notable exception -- and most are identifiable by a personality more so than an agenda. This, then, is the first problem: when loyalty to personalities consumes political parties, it becomes hard to reconcile the contradiction between ostensible demands for democracy on the one hand, and unquestioned and unbridled internal power on the other. It is a strange experience to hear Kings and Queens talk about democracy, even if they are Kings and Queens of parties rather than countries.
The second point to be made about political parties is that all too often, they have been willing to make Faustian bargains with military rulers or their associates in the domestic intelligence communities, all for their self-interest and short-term access to power. Nawaz Sharif, the man who today speaks most vociferously and stridently in favor of democracy, began his political career as a protege (and pawn) of Pakistan's military-intelligence apparatus, and helped destabilize Benazir Bhutto's first term in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Benazir herself was remarkably open to deals with autocrats, as long as she was guaranteed a fair sum of power in return. The MQM, as well as various religious parties, have all in past helped prop up military rule. In short, Pakistani political parties talk a good game about democracy, right up to the point where they can gain from not doing so; it takes very little arm-twisting for them to sacrifice principles for power.
Third, Pakistani political parties behave in highly undemocratic ways when in power. Recall our definition of democracy: a system of government with an involved set of checks and balances, and limits on power. In term after term, Pakistan's civilian leaders have attempted to dismantle any limits on power that may exist, and have attempted to centralize power in the executive. This is a truism applicable especially to those civilians elected in the post-1971 era, and especially to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The former made viable political competition in the country difficult at best, moved against trade unions (despite purportedly representing a left-of-center party) and other civil society organizations, clamped down on the press, and was perhaps the most megalomaniacal leader Pakistan has ever had (which is really saying something). Nawaz Sharif meanwhile, that champion of an independent judiciary, had his party's cadres storm the Supreme Court to obviate the apex court hearing a case against him in 1997. He also attempted to declare himself Ameer-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful), which would have left him with de facto autocratic powers. Even today, President Asif Zardari has dragged his feet on a campaign promise to repeal laws that allow the executive to dissolve parliament at his discretion; it is unclear what factors, other than a desire for greater power, could be responsible for the delay.
In conjunction, these three factors -- the highly personalist and loyalty-based political processes within parties, the proclivity to cut deals with military governments for short-term gain, and undemocratic behavior even from nominal democrats in power -- have meant that Pakistan's military has had an able partner in its destruction of democratic institutions. Very few parties can claim to have not played a role in this destruction at some time or another. Political parties in Pakistan have become adept at using the word "democracy" as a stick to beat the authoritarian government du jour, and have used it as an instrument to paint themselves as guarantors of a liberal and democratic order, if only given the chance by Western backers (Benazir Bhutto, with her Harvard and Oxford education, turned lobbying and schmoozing in Washington, New York and London into an art-form).
The country's much-celebrated lawyers movement cannot escape these characterizations. Acknowledged both at home and abroad as a brave and peaceful movement for the rule of law that ultimately brought an end to Pervez Musharraf's tenure as Pakistan's leader, the lawyer's movement has shown an ugly side in recent weeks. For one thing, the leader of the movement, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, has shown that he too cannot respect institutional boundaries, and demonstrated an alarming tendency to meddle in political affairs that are neither his nor his court's concern.
Moreover, lawyers have been involved in acts of violence recently, hardly serving as exemplars of the rule of law for which their putatively fought for over two years. In incidents widely reported in the Pakistani media recently, they physically assaulted both journalists and police. While it would be unfair to paint with broad brushes and implicate the entire movement because of the actions of a few, cynical observers of Pakistani politics have not been disabused of the notion that the lawyers movement was nothing more than a segment of society acting out to secure its parochial interests (the judiciary and the lawyers), seized upon by opportunistic parties and stakeholders (the PML-N, Imran Khan) as a vehicle to launch an anti-regime movement. While its ends were noble in the sense that they called for an end to military dictatorship, one must be careful to not impute the lawyers with pure and snow-white motives. By their recent actions, the lawyers and the judiciary -- or at least some elements of it -- have shown that the spirit of democracy, limits to power and the rule of law are tactical tools, not non-negotiable ends. In this, they are hardly alone in Pakistan's civil society.