15years after the 2008 general elections, the most fundamental condition for democratic governance – timely, free-and-fair elections - stands violated. One would assume, under regular constitutional conditions, that there should be no way around it. The constitution makes it clear that elections need to be held within 90 days, if a legislature is dissolved prior to the completion of its term. The superior judiciary ruled accordingly as well, in its judgement on the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assembly dissolution.

Yet, as is commonplace in Pakistan’s political history, the threat of some necessity, some caveat, some creative reinterpretation has come good. The Supreme Court’s judgement was discarded months ago, and census results have given another pretext for a delay. 15 years to the month since the country closed the book on its last, decade-long period of military rule, Pakistan’s democracy stands largely eroded.

The academic literature on democratisation suggests that countries usually require three peaceful transfers of power after free-and-fair elections for democracy to become ‘the only game in town’. Peaceful here generally means that all competing parties accept the results and that there is no pre or post-poll violence or coercion between parties. Free and fair usually implies that people have the unencumbered right to choose who they vote for, that legal regulations deciding who gets to compete and campaign are allowed to work unhindered, and that post-election placements of the government and opposition are done on the basis of the actual results.

Pakistan’s past 15 years read as a series of violations from these benchmarks. Some of it is driven by familiar ills. The establishment’s continued encroachment in matters of civilian governance, and its habit of playing favourites with varying sections of the political class are features nearly as old as the country. But some of the insecurity comes from unprecedented political polarisation between parties and in society as a whole, the breakdown of electoral institutions of political deliberation, and the rise of a ‘judicialization’ of politics, wherein the higher judiciary is repeatedly tasked to resolve political tussles.

Given this precarity, a closer look at the past decade and a half is merited. What drives a near-permanent condition of recurring crises? The usual response – unfettered power tussles between sections of an insular elite – goes a long (and obvious) way in answering this question. We’ve been here before in the 1970s and the 1990s. But there are additional, deeper issues at play here that are worth illuminating. How do socio-economic transformations of the past few decades make the current moment somewhat different? Are there tangible gains from these past 15 years that can help temper political pessimism?

Power Tussles

Pakistan’s first tryst with democracy lasted 7 years. It emerged in 1971 from the shadows of a decade of military rule, a genocidal civil war, and the secession of half the country, only to fall prey to its internal contradictions. In 1977, the PPP’s declaration of victory in an election of questionable fairness led to extensive street mobilisation and state-sanctioned political violence against the protesting opposition. As both the ruling party and the coalition of opposition parties – the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) - dug their heels, the stage offered ample space for the military to intervene and upend the political system as a whole.

A decade later, the second period of extended civilian rule – an 11 year phase from 1988 to 1999 – was frequently marred by power tussles between the two main parties, the PPP and the PML-N. Constitutionals perversions bequeathed by the preceding military regime of the 1980s, a Presidency beholden to the military’s political interests, and a pliant superior judiciary providing post-hoc validation to the military’s interventions conditioned an environment where forming and saving a government required all manner of brinkmanship. The outcome was 4 governments dismissed, three indirectly on the pretext of mal-governance and a fourth directly through a coup. In this context, politicians were cajoled or coerced to change loyalties, party coalitions were made and unmade overnight, and legislative activity remained an afterthought.

Looking back, power tussles conditioned under a praetorian context is the standout legacy of democracy in this country. Politicians fight amongst themselves for the chance to share a seat at the table with the permanent establishment. This fight is characterised by a desire for short term gain, it frequently does not adhere to constitutional norms, and remains marred by the absence of any restraint.

Despite a promising start, the country’s third and most recent phase of democracy demonstrates many of these features. In 2006, the PPP and PMLN – the two largest parties at the tail-end of General Musharraf’s military rule – developed a consensus on what should constitute the bare minimum norms of political competition in Pakistan. These included a reversion to the original constitution, fiscal and administrative federalism, and an agreement to keep the military out of politics. A charitable reading of history would suggest that the agreement lasted till 2010, just enough to pass important constitutional amendments and secure greater provincial autonomy. It was sacrificed soon after at the altar of a newly empowered Supreme Court, as opposition parties discovered that judicial interventions in politics were a new mechanism of ramping up political pressure.

With the rise of the PTI as the other main party, this newer judicial route was combined with the more familiar, covert interventions by the military once more. At its receiving end was the PMLN, which having flexed its muscles in government a few times, was sharply reminded of how the system can work to exploit any number of weaknesses. In this case, the weakness was the overhang of corruption that tainted its leadership and made them vulnerable to punitive interventions.

Since 2017, the script has looked fairly familiar. In fact, one can plausibly argue that it’s so repetitive that the exact identity of characters is immaterial. What can be recorded is that a political party was cut down to size and another one selected for government through a variety of standard interventions, which included court cases, curated defections, and the cobbling together of a coalition. Those on the receiving end spoke about democracy, about the constitution, and named names from afar (mostly London). Then in 2022, after the preferred selectee passed its sell-by date, the same process was repeated, this time with the former recipients being brought in to create an even more unwieldy coalition and in the face of much public bewilderment and, subsequently, anger.

Throughout this time, politicians have relied on the security apparatus to pursue frivolous cases, have cheered on as rivals have been picked up, have gleefully shared video and audio recordings of their opponents, and created justifications for why all such unconstitutional acts are, in reality, a necessity. And all of this has happened under conditions of severe economic distress, with inflation at its highest in 5 decades, and with economic default a distinct possibility. It has shown Pakistani democracy at its ‘de-socialized’ best, unmoored from the considerations of any actual people who live in this country.

Same but different?

If what we’re witnessing today is what we’ve witnessed earlier, a pessimist might declare that the current phase will likely be bookended by another decade of military rule. Given the country’s praetorian legacy, this possibility cannot be ruled out. However, the fact that we’re in year 15, a general election is scheduled to be held later this year, and that there is widespread distaste (to put it mildly) being voiced over political interference shows that some features have changed.

Since being removed from office, the PTI has channelled its anger into an amorphous anti-interference stance that targets the COAS, rather than the institution as a whole. The cost has been borne by some of its senior politicians and everyday supporters, through acts of legal and extra-legal coercion. Earlier in February, a 30 year old party supporter was sentenced to three years in prison for a tweet that was deemed to be defamatory to the armed forces. He had 184 followers on his twitter account. Following the party’s protests at key military installations against Imran Khan’s arrest in early May, an additional 3000 supporters have been arrested.

The PTI is the latest party to realise that the powers granted to elected governments under the constitution exist largely on paper. In government, the role of a ruling party is as a colluding junior partner, at best. Since April 2022, Pakistan is in a position of having all three of its leading parties experiencing some manner of a rude awakening at some point in their history. While that hasn’t stopped the PMLN and PPP from colluding for short-term interest, the mechanisms of who calls the shots have never been more transparent to the public at large.

Part of this transparency is just down to socio-economic and demographic changes. Urbanisation through migration to towns and cities is the most prominent of these changes. Pakistan’s cities and towns now house close to 40% of the population officially, and at least half unofficially. Accompanying this transition is the gradual proliferation of higher education amongst the young. Currently, the percentage of people between the ages of 21 and 35 with an undergraduate degree is almost 25%. The same figure for the overall adult population is 6%.

But perhaps the biggest transformation has taken place in how people consume and circulate information. In 1998, less than 30% of all households consumed information through the television. The internet was non-existent. By 2017, the corresponding figures for television usage are over 70%, while nearly 95% of all households have access to information via their mobile phones. Social media usage has grown rapidly, in tandem with cost-effective access to mobile broadband internet. The terms of engagement, between people, between people and political leaders, and between people and state institutions have changed dramatically.

It is in this context that power tussles, predicated on who gets to call what shots and for what end, are no longer as opaque as they once were. Sure, there is the corresponding rise in disinformation and propaganda that has accompanied internet use all over the world. But as political and state elites have discovered in recent months, it is a domain that cannot be moulded on a whim.

On its own, an urbanised and increasingly connected polity doesn’t necessarily mean democratic deepening. Fascism too, after all, is a product of modernising societies. But what it means is that political preferences will be voiced more clearly, that partisan loyalties cultivated online and through electronic media will find a way of expressing themselves at the ballot box or on the street, and that a significantly greater amount of effort, as the PDM and the military are now discovering, would have to be expended by political and state elites to curate and bend politics to some specific end.

Green Shoots?

With perennial concern about the health and future of Pakistan’s democracy, it is worth identifying what it has delivered so far. In other words, does it make a case for its own salvation?

Given current economic conditions and the insularity of the upper classes, it is easy to opt for pessimism. But a slightly more realistic assessment would see some tangible gains from these past 15 years. Resource tussles between provinces and the centre – a thorny issue for much of Pakistan’s history and a central cause for its break-up in 1971 – have largely been resolved, in part due to the constitutional amendments that accompanied a return to democracy a decade and a half ago. Politics has been provincialized without becoming an existential question.

The socio-economic and demographic changes identified earlier have also compelled political parties to put up some appearance of being responsive. One small, but not insignificant, example is partisan conflicts over urban mass transit, and the ability of provincial governments governed by different parties to provide more efficient and effective solutions. For a country starved of any serious thinking on these issues for decades, a shift in discourse – even if it comes with a heavy dose of posturing - deserves to be welcomed.

In any final reckoning, the overhang of a praetorian military cannot be overlooked. The military is the proverbial elephant in the room and a cross-party consensus that could limit its influence remains elusive. In this light, political parties remain the weakest link. Unresponsive and outdated internal structures, deferential treatment of central leaders, the persistence of a dynastic logic of decision-making, and an unwillingness to devolve authority to the local level have left them as ineffective defenders of a democratic order.

All of these failings accompany the periodic sin of colluding with the establishment for short-term gain. Till these features change, recurring crises will remain the norm. In other words, for Pakistan’s political system to obtain some manner of constitutional stability, parties will have to carry a belief in democracy that compels them to fight for it.

Umair Javed teaches politics and sociology at LUMS.

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