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  • Pakistan:Hope Amidst Turmoil
  • Rasul Bakhsh Rais (bio)

After enduring a spell of military rule that lasted from 1977 to 1988 under the late General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan has in recent years been making substantial progress toward a reasonably representative form of democracy. Its march down this road, however, has often run into minefields that the military regime laid down in a series of amendments to the Constitution of 1973. Since the latter half of 1979, General Zia had been experimenting with a variety of quasi-democratic modifications of his basically authoritarian regime: staging "partyless" elections, reintroducing a controlled form of civilian government, holding a referendum on his "Islamization" program, and even declaring the official termination of martial law at the end of 1985. The general's death in a mysterious plane crash on 17 August 1988 came less than three months after he had used his power as president to dismiss his own handpicked civilian prime minister, Mohammad Khan Junejo, and dissolve the 237-member National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan's bicameral Federal Legislature, with a promise of "free, fair, and independent" elections in November.

Twice since Zia's death—first in 1990 and then again in 1993—his successor as president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, has used the same authority to bring down a government that enjoyed the support of parliament and to force new legislative elections. In a departure from past practice, the army did not react to the ensuing uncertainty by stepping in to assume power. Instead, it remained content on both occasions to act as a major force behind the scenes, lending quiet support to presidential actions.

To understand what is going on in Pakistan today, one must realize [End Page 132] that the problems of transition which the country has been experiencing since 1988 flow as much from the legacy of recent military rule as they do from feudal political traditions and the deficiencies of a civil society that remains seriously underdeveloped. As a rule, the growth of a democratic order depends on the presence of freely competing political parties, the recognized supremacy of representative institutions, the protection of basic civil rights and liberties, and the observance of constitutional norms. Clearly, none of these can flourish under a martial-law regime with little or no popular legitimacy. Indeed, such regimes usually find it necessary to undermine systematically the development of such practices and institutions, often by suspending, distorting, or abrogating constitutions and by suborning or oppressing democratic movements and leaders.

The National Assembly dissolutions of recent years have greatly reinforced the sense that the democratic transition remains highly tenuous and sadly incomplete. The Pakistani president—who holds an office that is conceived of as largely honorary in most other parliamentary forms of government—enjoys the authority to dismiss premiers and send legislators back to the hustings as a result of constitutional amendments that General Zia pushed through in the autumn of 1985, just before the official end of martial law. To a large extent, it is the asymmetry of power between the president and the prime minister that makes the system dysfunctional; this asymmetry is the direct legacy of Zia's authoritarian rule.

In 1947, when the British accepted the partitioning of the subcontinent prefatory to their own withdrawal, Pakistan boasted a level of institutional development similar to India's, and its founders were no less committed to secular democracy and the rule of law than their Indian counterparts. Nevertheless, the new state (carved out of the heavily Muslim but noncontiguous northwest and northeast corners of the old British Raj) suffered a precipitous slide into military-bureaucratic authoritarianism. The country's failure to consolidate a democratic political process was due more to domestic factors than to its precarious security situation. At a minimum, working parliamentary democracy needed disciplined parties, a federal constitution, and a measure of consensus on sensitive issues concerning representation and provincial autonomy.

Unfortunately, the Muslim League—the party that led the struggle for the creation of Pakistan—disintegrated into rival factions. Disputes over how to divide power between the central government and the provinces delayed the drafting and adoption of a constitution for the new republic. These and...


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