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Pakistan’s democracy

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One of the major arguments that ran in favor of the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was to achieve prolonged-peace in the historically hostile Indian subcontinent. Religion became the cornerstone for the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah who championed the cause for a homeland for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent to safeguard them from religious persecution in the geographies where they comprised the minority.

On August 14, 1947, Pakistan gained independence with Jinnah becoming the infant democracy’s first Governor-General. Unfortunately for Jinnah, however, his career as the President of Pakistan was rather short-lived as he passed away due to tuberculosis in 1948. One could argue the untimely and unanticipated demise of Jinnah laid the groundwork for the country’s coercively muted democracy that suffers to date.

Pakistan has been a global hotbed when it comes to systematically orchestrated military coups. The first instance of a successful military coup surfaced in 1953 when the then Governor-General of Pakistan, Ghulam Muhammad, with the backing of military chief Ayub Khan, dismissed not only Khawaja Nazimuddin – the then Prime Minister – but also the entire democratically elected Constituent Assembly of Pakistan which was supposedly trying to restrict the Governor-General’s powers.

This is, in fact, just the first of a total of four successful military coups with many of them culminating in further deterioration of the economic and diplomatic rapport of Pakistan. The most recent coup, schemed by then army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf culminated in the Kargil War of 1999 which resulted in thousands of casualties.

The seemingly asymmetrical power-dynamics between the Pakistani army and the “government” raise questions on the state of democracy in the country. The facade of a supposedly civilian government in place which is subject to the whims of the military has been a running theme in Pakistan’s 72-year long existence. It’s rather ironic that the health of Pakistan’s democracy is essentially dependent on the political and economic stability that the military provides through its decision-making powers.

Interestingly enough, since the first Indo-Pak war of 1947, the Pakistani army has been at the helm of every diplomatic decision taken by Pakistan. The war also gave the army an eternally bulletproof argument of the “ever-looming threat of India” which they’ve frequently used for their extravagant expenditure on the army with their high military expenditure to fiscal budget ratio.

The various military coups in the country, however, should not be studied in isolation. In parallel with the coups, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has plagued the country’s democratic fiber. Foreign affairs experts consistently rekindle the unofficial link between the Pakistani army and their financial aid to religious fundamentalist institutes. Most interestingly, the bulk of this aid is donated by supranational organizations and countries including the U.S. to fight “Islamic terrorism” – a by-product of religious fundamentalism gone too far.

This labyrinthine nexus of power almost exclusively owned by the Pakistani army can be held responsible for the large part of Pakistani populace’s misfortune. Of course, this isn’t to discount the corrupt governance exercised for several years by the likes of Nawaz Sharif and the Bhutto dynasty. And rightfully, they’re paying their dues for their misgovernance. Conversely, however, convicted military personnel, most recently, Mr. Musharraf himself, are let go by state institutes in, legally speaking, bizarre rulings.

In December 2019, a Special Court ruled Musharraf guilty of a treason case and handed the death penalty. Dramatically enough, in January 2020, the Lahore High Court overturned the Special Court’s verdict calling it “unconstitutional.”

With Imran Khan now at the hot seat in Islamabad, Pakistan has hopes for a change in the country’s fortunes. However, over the past few years, Khan has had a complete overturn on his stance towards the military.

The formerly vocal critic of the army is today all supportive of the army’s decisions with regard to the Pakistani foreign policy and its internal matters pertaining to Balochistan and other troubled areas. It thus requires a complete letting go of all formal power on the Pakistani army’s end if one has to realistically hope for a democratic restructuring of Pakistan. Until then, the coercers in camouflage attire will continue to pull the strings to chart Pakistan’s future according to their script.   

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