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  • Pakistan’s Enduring Experiment
  • Leo E. Rose (bio) and D. Hugh Evans (bio)

Since the middle of the 1980s, Pakistan has been engaged in an experiment with parliamentary democracy that is the third in its 50-year history. Despite the country’s checkered political record, popular attachment to representative government has defeated the efforts of successive military rulers to establish alternative models. Yet many observers remain skeptical that the latest version of democracy will prove any more effective or durable than its predecessors. There are grounds for pessimism: no democratic government since 1985 has been allowed to complete its term of office, and there is still no accepted mechanism for shifting power from one elected government to another.

Despite these problems, there has been real progress over the last decade. Pakistan’s 130 million people have an unprecedented opportunity to build a viable and legitimate pluralist polity. The perennially troublesome question of the country’s continued cohesion is no longer relevant. Regional secessionism, typified by ethnic-Sindhi demands for a separate state modeled on the example of Bangladesh, has declined. And what may be called Pakistan’s “outer” regions are becoming increasingly well integrated, both economically and culturally, with the “core” province of Punjab, which is home to more than 60 percent of the national population.

Another element strengthening the case for democracy has been the inability of nondemocratic governments to secure either political legitimacy or faster economic and social development. Perhaps most important of all has been a growing perception within the armed forces that direct military intervention in politics has not only failed to solve [End Page 83] the country’s problems (in some cases, it may have made them worse), but has also made it harder for the military to maintain its professional capabilities and carry out its primary mission of defending the nation against external attack.

Since 1988, successive army chiefs have pursued a consistent strategy of supporting rather than subverting the democratic process. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the spring of 1993, when the determination of both President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif to exercise what each regarded as his rightful official prerogative created a constitutional crisis. In an earlier period, some ambitious general might have used such an impasse as an opportunity to seize power. On this occasion, however, the army chief of staff, General Abdul Waheed, worked behind the scenes to make both antagonists resign in preparation for autumn elections under a neutral caretaker government. Someday, we may look back at the events of April to November 1993 as a watershed in Pakistan’s struggle to construct a lasting democracy.

Nonetheless, more recent occurrences have underscored the continuing fragility of Pakistani democracy. On 5 November 1996, President Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari dismissed the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with two years still to go in its five-year term. In the 1990s, the “classic” causes of past coups may pose less of a danger. In earlier decades, the worst threats came from subversion by military-bureaucratic interests—as exemplified by the first military intervention under Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in 1958—or waves of massive antigovernment agitation like the one that prompted General Zia ul-Haq to overthrow the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in July 1977. But popular dissatisfaction with the inability of successive elected goverments since 1988 to address internal threats to law and order and deliver improved living standards to the bulk of the population remains a source of instability. President Leghari has justified his decision to sack Benazir Bhutto, his erstwhile ally, on the grounds of alleged corruption and mismanagement. Though the president has installed a caretaker government and called new elections for 3 February 1997, his action—widely believed to have had the approval of the army leadership—has fueled a wider public debate about the future of parliamentary democracy in its present form. Direct military rule, however, no longer appears to be a credible alternative in the eyes of most Pakistanis.

Zia and the Reemergence of Democracy

The current system dates to the last years of Zia’s rule, which...

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pp. 83-96
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