The Trouble with Pakistan Politics

Gulf News, September 2, 2005

In a functioning dem-ocracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power.

Under Pakistan’s viceregal system, however, the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent State establishment.

The State establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation.

The few occasions when elected governments have been allowed to take office, the State establishment has tried its best to circumscribe the power of elected officials.

Between 1972 and 1977, an elected government managed to wield full authority simply because the permanent State structure simply could not stay in power after the bifurcation of the country under military rule.

Change was necessary if revolution were to be averted. Once the elected civilians had made sufficient mistakes to discredit them, the military-led establishment was ready to reassert itself through the coup d’├ętat of 1977.

The recently held local government elections were a typically viceregal electoral exercise. The most farcical aspect of these polls is the anomaly of the election being held on a non-party basis but the ruling party declaring victory.

Notwithstanding the pronouncements of Pakistan’s toothless Election Commission, the election was far from free or fair.
Candidates representing the opposition were either disqualified or intimidated.

Some Corps Commanders of Pakistan’s ostensibly professional army told local influentials to throw their weight behind officially approved candidates or at least sever ties with opposition political parties.

The ubiquitous political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operated from the shadows to coerce or blackmail candidates in some districts.

The military-intelligence apparatus made it clear that it wanted Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) wiped out and the alliance of Islamist parties, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) contained.

Although candidates were not running formally as nominees of political parties, their affiliations were known to the local electors.

The establishment wanted the King’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), to win in Punjab and rural Sindh while the ethnic Mohajir party MQM was to gain control of Urban Sindh.

A truncated result in NWFP and Balochistan was desired and secured with military precision.

What must one make of General Pervez Musharraf’s assertion that “extremists have been defeated” in the local government elections?

A reference to Pakistan’s chequered history might shed some light on the General-President’s mindset.

In August 1958, almost two months before Pakistan’s first direct military coup, the British High Commissioner at Karachi reported to his superiors in London the possibility of the military’s direct assumption of power.

Then president, Major General Iskander Mirza had shared with the High Commissioner the view that democracy was unsuited to a country such as Pakistan even as plans were publicly laid out for general elections scheduled for early 1959.


According to declassified British papers, the British High Commissioner, Sir Alexander Symon, reported that the Pakistani president had told him of his intention to intervene “if the election returns showed that a post-electoral government was likely to be dominated by undesirable elements”.

Sir Alexander noted parenthetically that the term “undesirable” was not defined “and no doubt the term may include any persons who are unlikely to vote for Iskander Mirza as President”.

Just as Mirza considered anyone unlikely to vote for him for president as “undesirable”, Musharraf clearly considers his opponents and critics as “extremists”.

Students of Pakistan’s political history know that soon after the 1958 coup d’├ętat, Pakistan’s military leadership started searching for “forms of democracy” that would allow the generals to retain control of policy while allowing civilians an illusion of political power and some control over patronage.

The military establishment and its apologists argue that the military’s current political intervention was necessitated by the widely discussed incompetence and corruption of the politicians that held power during the 1990s.

But Pakistan’s history did not begin in 1988 and with the political competition between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom have been systematically maligned by Pakistan’s establishment.

Pakistan’s problem, quite clearly, does not lie with specific politicians and their flaws.

It is the product of an attitude that puts generals on a pedestal, refuses to recognise politic