The Dilemma of Democracy in Pakistan

By Bettina Robotka

Some of the most significant changes in the world since the late eighties like the policy of “glasnost” (transparency) in the former Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the political changes in the socialist world have elevated the representative democracy as the most suitable political system available in the world. Many countries of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union as well as many in the so-called developing world have since then taken to democracy as the model to be followed in their political setup. Parliamentary Democracy in many parts of the world has proved to be workable though it is also no perfect political system. “Suppose that elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, and separatists. That is the dilemma”, said the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke about Jugoslavia in the 1990s. But the fact is that the West has decided to promote democracy worldwide and to make the adherence to democracy a decisive criterion for the awarding of loans or development aid, the allocation of development funds and of other means of economic aid and cooperation, the incentives for “going democratic” have risen considerably throughout the world.

When on the 12th October 1999 for the third time in the 52 years of the existence of the country, the army took over political power in Pakistan, the good old skeptics in the international arena started coming out again as so many times before calling Pakistan a failed state and unfit for democracy. Also, Pakistanis themselves by now have their doubts about the sustainability of this type of political system. Their welcoming of the take-over by the army is a revealing expression of their understanding that the sham “democracy” before the take-over was not delivering. So, the question arises what is actually wrong with either democracy or the Pakistanis? To answer this question I would propose to look into the concrete meaning and historical conditions of existence of democracy in Europe and in Pakistan.

The History of Democracy in South Asia

In South Asia, the principle of representative democracy had been introduced by the British though incompletely during the colonial period since the late 19th century. They started introducing councils with partly elected members which in the beginning were mere debating clubs but which assumed with the passing of time a more important role. The voting right was a very restricted one, the restrictions being imposed on the basis of education and income. No more than an estimated two or three percent of the British Indian population was entitled to franchise by the end of the colonial period. The modern Indian intelligentsia being educated mainly on European lines accepted this European idea of nationalism, nation state and parliamentary democracy in principle though those Muslims who had studied the working of representation on majority lines in depth, started demanding adjustments for the Indian situation.  The main reason for their critical attitude was that the main principle of representative democracy was majority. Whosoever commands a majority of votes will win the seat or mandate. This was an acceptable principle under British political circumstances where there were no fixed majorities or minorities and any minority had a realistic chance to be in a majority tomorrow.

This turned out to be different though in British-India. After the British had introduced the census system from 1871 onwards, it became quite clear that Indian society is very diverse and structured into communities not only along ethnic lines, but along social (caste) lines and religious lines also. The census report made it quite visible that Muslims were a minority in British-India, a fact that was not going to change soon. Given this diverse structure of the British-Indian society and the strong traditional attachment of the communities it was rightly assumed that the voting behavior of those who had got the right to vote would be dominated by the social group/community to which they belonged and not by belonging to any political ideology or party.

With group identities being mainly determined by religion (or caste) in a mainly pre-modern society this meant that Muslims under a representative system would be a permanent minority. While trying to explain this, Sir S. A. Khan in 1893 made the famous comparison about representative democracy being like a game of dice where one player has got four dice and the other only one.  This was a situation which was not acceptable to the political leadership of the Muslims who belonged to the traditional Muslim elite especially of the Muslim minority provinces UP, Bengal and Bombay. The idea of reserved seats and/or separate electorate was developed by them in order to seek relief from their permanent minority situation by securing an acceptable share in political representation and power access. Nevertheless, both Jawaharlal Nehru and M. A. Jinnah having been educated in Britain and adhering to European ideas had never any doubt in their minds as to the political system that should govern the country after independence. Both saw in representative democracy the only possible solution for a future independent India and Pakistan. All the negotiations between INC and AIML since the Lucknow Pact of 1916 aimed at finding a solution for the problem of Muslims being a permanent minority and of securing an adequate access to representation for them. After the last negotiations between INC and AIML for a secured share in political power for the Muslim elite failed in August 1946 and with the pressure for an early leave on the British side, partition came as the quickest and only viable solution which brought those Muslims in Pakistan politically into a majority position and thus seemingly solved the problem at least for the Muslims of Pakistan.

Pakistan came into existence as a Muslim majority state under the Government of India Act of 1935 which made it a parliamentary democracy. All successive constitutions of Pakistan retained this notion of parliamentary democracy for Pakistan. Nonetheless, the democratic state did not work satisfactorily in Pakistan; it could not perform its tasks such as providing law and order, initiating economic development and developing adequate political institutions. In 1958 the army stepped in for the first time to take over the political power and was equally welcomed by the people as in 1999. In 1977, Z. A. Bhutto’s rule was brought to an end by the army after political forces in the country had proved too weak to sort out the problems with the election rigged by the Bhutto government. What are the reasons for this repeated failure of democracy?  It is quite clear that in all the cases there were foreign vested interests which did find it more convenient to deal with a military government than with a weak political one. Those external factors are left aside here deliberately. In any case it can be stated safely that the Pakistani state with its political parties and institutions has been not strong enough to tackle such emergency situations while the army has been a very strongly developed institution with considerable political power and power ambitions. The reasons for this we will try to explain later. In addition to this we would like to argue here that the problems with the working of democracy are created by the fact that parliamentary democracy is a European political system developed for a European society and almost all those basic conditions for running a democracy in Pakistan are missing or insufficient.

European democracy in a pre-modern society

Parliamentary democracy is basically a way of running a state which evolved in Europe in the 18th/19th centuries under special socio-economic and cultural conditions. Its development is a feature of what we call European Modernity. What are the features of European Modernity on the basis of which democracy was developed?

The main feature is capitalist development in the economic sector of society preceded by the eradication of feudal landowning systems, by a strong urbanization and industrialization processes and the mechanization of production and distribution. In the field of society modernity is characterized by the breaking up and elimination of feudal social groups.  The process of bringing land into the capitalist market system by freeing it from feudal bonds and ownership relations drove landlords to find other occupations for themselves as industrialists for instance or in professions. Peasants got either the ownership for the lands they were tilling and were relieved of their feudal bondage to the land and the landlord or lost all land and moved to the cities as free labour power. A class of bourgeois entrepreneurs developed, creating a market for the breaking up of pre-modern social institutions like extended families, clans, dependence on landlords. In the ideological field processes like enlightenment, rationalism, development of science and technology, ideas of equality, freedom and fraternity and secularization characterized Modernity. As a result of these developments the parliamentary system of democracy with elections, adult franchise, political parties and political ideologies was designed. It evolved and was designed in a way which suited the newly developed social classes and groups of European society, individuals freed of their economic, social and ideological bondages, with a liberal mind and free choice available to them.

Reviewing these factors we have to admit that almost all of them are missing or have a different design in Pakistan: capitalist economic development is weak and confined to a few urban areas only, feudalism and tribalism have not been eradicated and are incorporated into the current socio-economic and political system. Land reforms have never been successfully carried out; the sardari system has never been challenged. In the tribal belt of FATA outdated laws like the Frontier Regulations introduced by the British in the 19th century have until today not been replaced and the system of payment to tribal maliks also introduced by the British has been perpetuated by successive Pakistan governments thus reinforcing the tribal power structures and value system which otherwise would have died a natural death.  Accordingly, the transformation of the society to what is called Modernity is incomplete with feudal/tribal social and economic dependencies and ideological mindsets prevailing even in the minds of those who are technically not feudals/tribals in the socio-economic sense. Some examples for this state of mind are the idea of family honour being entrenched in the women of the family, the idea that an official position entitles the holder to receive additional income and favours which in Europe and the West comes under the chapter of corruption, or the idea that the right of group/community over any member of the group is more important than the rights of that individual. Hence, ideas like equal rights or equal opportunities for all citizens are underdeveloped or missing. Even a freely and fairly elected parliament in Pakistan consists of feudal lords and tribal leaders who can not even be expected to carry out an anti-feudal or anti-tribal agenda, to change the laws which suit them and from which they benefit or initiate land reforms which would hit them and their families first. A middle class which could be the agent for such an agenda is missing or not strong enough to force the leading feudals out of power.

There is another argument also. Political institutions and political parties are an important element of parliamentary democracy. In the West a political party is a group of likeminded people; likeminded in the sense that they share a certain political ideology, a common view about how the society should be run and developed. Those political ideologies (conservative, liberal, social-democratic or labour) have developed a set of ideas about how to run economy, what to teach, which way society should develop.  A member of a party has to share and actively profess that ideological ground on which his or her party is standing. Of course, at times it can be beneficial for one’s career alsoto be a member of a certain party, but this is not a primary feature. In Pakistan political parties are private enterprises of single persons or families without any systematic and well-established ideology. Terms like “Islamic socialism” are used as a cover for personal power purposes only, there is no such established theory of Islamic socialism and no political will (or capacity) to develop one. Another fact is that most of the political parties are highly undemocratic in their inner structures. Party leaders have lifetime terms of office and party elections are not being held on a regular basis. The system of accountability of the party leaders to the members of the parties and any discussion about further development of the party program are missing. How can representatives of such a party be expected to create democracy outside the party in the country when coming to power?

Pakistan: a weak state

The weakness of the political institutions in Pakistan is one of the major reasons for the weakness of democracy. This weakness gave the possibility and may be the compulsion to the army to step in at certain points in the history of the Pakistan state when in a crisis situation the political government turned out to be not strong enough to deal with a situation or when a government tried to encroach on the power of the army. What was the reason for the weakness of state and political institutions in Pakistan? The argument here is to say that while from 15th of August 1947 onwards the rest of India just carried on with what the British had left behind using all the settings, structures and institutions Pakistan had to start afresh from zero with hardly any institutional set-up ready at hand. They say there was a single typewriter available in the whole of Karachi. Pakistan had to adjust the greater number of refugees and it had to face the first crisis of her existence: the war on Kashmir. Politically the INC which was a huge and experienced organization had largely withdrawn from those of the Pakistan territories where it had some stake (West Punjab, Karachi).

The population of what constituted now Pakistan was much less politicized and educated than in the British-Indian heartland. While under the British educational institutions, communication lines, and political institutions like councils, debating societies and libraries were established in the cities and administrative centers the areas constituting Pakistan with the exception of Lahore was mainly left out from this development.  Political parties were founded and flourished and political actions like hartals, meetings and strikes were observed. Furthermore, even the Muslim League was quite weakly organized and without a strong popular basis especially in the rural and tribal areas. It was a very different party from the INC: the Pakistan demand had been advocated strongest in the Muslim minority areas of UP and Bombay; on the Pakistani side the ML had hardly stable grass root organization and support.

The main aim of the Muslim League’s political program had been the achievementof Pakistan without spelling out very clearly what that meant and what it should be like. After the coming into existence of Pakistan the ML was in dire need of a new program and direction which it found difficult to develop (until today!). Jinnah the intellectual and factual leader of the ML was busy in tackling the daily emergencies of the first month of Pakistan’s existence. Besides, his failing health may have been another reason for his failing attention to the re-organization and re-adjustment of the ML to the demands of Pakistani reality. No other leader came to the rescue of the ML, it was torn between the ongoing power struggles between different Punjabi feudal families after the demise of Jinnah in 1948 and Liaqat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951. Regional parties with nationalist ideologies were perceived as enemies rather than a new feature in a growing independent party system of Pakistan.

This vividly shows that the reorganization and development of political institutions in Pakistan met with many obstacles which kept them extremely weak from the very beginning. This created a power vacuum in the political set-up which was filled with ongoing quarrels of individual contenders for power. The only institution which was functional at that time and was re-organized at a quick pace was the Pakistan army. The Kashmir war and the (real or perceived) Indian military threat for Pakistan were two powerful factors which made the civilian governments concede overall priority to the army and its needs. Because the army was a well established and functioning body and had the aura of being straightforward and void of corruption. With the coming downof the military to day-to-day political, administrative and economic involvement this became something like a self-fulfilling prophecy: theories about the capacity to modernize society were introduced and gained plausibility among the army itself and also among a part of the public.  This entrance of the military into politics proved to be a development which by now has made it a full-fledged player in Pakistan’s politics and economy.

The failure of the post-colonial state

As a result of this development Pakistan today has arrived in a situation which I would like to call “the failure of the post-colonial state”. The state is not any more able to perform its first and foremost duty: to provide security to the lives and properties of its citizens. It is increasingly seen as failing to provide quick and cheap justice to the people and its economic performance – admittedly under wrong guidance of international donor agencies – is superficial and not rooted in the local economy. The missing “trickle-down effect deplored by Pakistani and international observers should have been substituted by a bottom-up approach (to use the fashionable vocabulary) in order to produce real results for the common people.

Rising militancy and the ever growing demand for an Islamic state and the implementation of the shariah are a vivid expression of this failure. Supposedly those Islamic structures would achieve what the post-colonial state has failed to do: provide law and order, provide cheap and speedy justice and immediate implementation of the decisions taken. Also the unchecked pace of urbanization and Westernization of the upper layers of Pakistani society with no concern for improvement of the living standards of the majority of the poor and lower middle class population is provoking protest.

Dr. Bettina Robotka is a historian and a Senior Researcher at the Seminar of South Asian History and Society, Humboldt University, Berlin.

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  • student
    Posted at 20:19h, 29 July Reply

    a clarification:
    on the lines explained above, is representative democracry and parlimentary democracy the same thing?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 20:57h, 29 July Reply

    No, a parliamentary democracy is one form of representative democracy.

    When represenatives are chosen by the people the outcome is a representative democracy.

    When the representatives (parliament) choose the government, the result is a parliamentary democracy as in the UK.

    When the ruling partly is separately chosen by popular vote (as in the US), the result can be a presidential form of democracy. In this case, the parliament (legislature) exists as a check on the powers of the President (executive) whose cabinet members need not be members of parliament.

    You can find the details on Wikipedia:

  • student
    Posted at 13:31h, 01 August Reply


  • salman
    Posted at 11:37h, 14 August Reply

    I think that main problem with Pakistani democracy was the lack of time it was let to develop. I personally believe democracy ‘develops.’ It don’t come all of a sudden. Only if army hadn’t stepped in, the weak democracy would have at least started a joirney to end, eventually, in true democracy. But sadly…so didn’t happen.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 20:36h, 20 August Reply

    I agree that democracy ‘develops’ and doesn’t come all of a sudden. But this is the point to ponder. Democracy didn’t develop gradually in the Indian subcontinent. It came all of a sudden with the impending departure of the British.

    The subcontinent moved from a monarchy (Mughal empire) to colonial rule to a democracy with universal suffrage. Perhaps that is why democracy was so weak that it could be supplanted by the army so easily.

    Perhaps democracy has to emerge from below. Perhaps, it cannot be gifted from the top. If it is, someone or the other would knock it over because it has no roots. In real life, we cannot expect interest groups to scarifice their personal interest for the sake of others. In real life it is always a war of all against all and the stronger party prevails unless there are rules to prevent predatory behavior. Even a democratic country like the US can feel free to violate the sovereignty of other countries because it can get away with it.

  • salman
    Posted at 17:04h, 21 August Reply

    Well…that’s right. It has to come from bottom. Proper awareness among masses is very important together with a free press – otherwise it becomes the elites’ ticket to live luxury at the cost of our money they get thry taxes!!

  • Zalii Shah
    Posted at 12:21h, 24 September Reply

    Pakistan was a play ball of big international forces. They got their unachieveable objects ( win of Afghan war) and Pakistan paied for it in the form of political and economical unstabilities.
    In short term, it is difficult to take out Pakistan from these crisis. A stable political institution in Pakistan needs much time to solve current problems with the help of International community.
    I think, this is last chance for Pakistan under this democratic government. If it fails to achieve its goal. The south Asia will be unstable for a long time. That would be pity.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:31h, 25 September Reply

    This can be looked at from a different perspective. The Pakistani government under Zia chose to get involved in the first Afghan war. This was ostensbly to promote a military concept called “strategic depth” but really to win legitimacy for an undemocratic government by exploiting religious sentiments. And because Zia was a military ruler, he did not care to ask anybody if that was what the ordinary people wanted, whether they understood the sacrifices that would be involved, or whether they were willing to pay the price of diverting resources from development.

    As a consequence of these and other policies also freely chosen by Pakistan’s rulers, the country is in a crisis. Getting out of the crisis needs a leadership of very high calibre and the help of international friends. Neither seems in the cards.

    You are right that the unravelling of Pakistan would lead to instability in the region. The combination of undemocratic politics and unexamined religious beliefs is proving to be a deadly combination for the poor people of the region.

  • Zalii Shah
    Posted at 12:15h, 26 September Reply

    What is main problem with south asian people. They are south asian but they do not think as a south asian. Indian people think about india, Pakistani think about Pakistan and Bangladeshi think about Bangladesh. Before 1947, they had a combined national approched which has been diminished with the passage of time.
    Europe had fought a lot of war with each other and they learnt one lesson from the history; with the unity of Europe they can solve political and social problems. European countries have many challanges e.g. they do not have one culture, they do not have one language, they do not have common food.
    We have lot of advantages; we have one culture, we have same food, we tell same jokes, we use same phrases in our talk, we have a common language which is understandable from Kabul to Chattagang to last corner of south india.
    Why we , young people, do see these advantages and talk about a realistic future. In 1947 we had a nightmare but it has gone. We should be optimistic and look for by dreaming good future ( a united south asia). It is only chance of our survival in the world of globalisation.

    In this globalised world, only a united south asia can solve the problem of normal people who are still living in misery and still do not have a money to afford themselves and their childern one time food.

    Look Europe have solved this problem and no one sleep hungry…..

  • Dr. Bettina Robotka
    Posted at 04:39h, 08 April Reply

    Democracy as I see it has two constituent parts: one is the institutional part (parliament, political parties and ideologies, elections) and secondly, an ideological. Democracy is based on the understanding of equality (as a citizen in front of the law; not economic equality or any other). That means everyone has one vote and that has to be respected. Everyone can stand for election and if elected the party and the country will respect the vote. Even if the institutions are there in Pakistan and India of today, (even if they are weak) that spirit of equality is missing. It means that if my maasi or my driver is getting elected I will accept, respect and follow him/her. As long as we even keep a separate glas in our cupboard for a worker if he wants a glas of water, this liberal mindset is not there. Therefore, even if we run the institutions more or less smoothly their meaning will not be the same.
    I think it has to do with the pre-modern structure of Pakistani (and Indian) society. Europe has not always been democratic, it comes after the French revolution. Democracy needs a society where traditional structures like tribes, biradris, extended families are broken down (they had existed in Europe also!) and man is first and formost an individual, not depending in his opinions, decision making on anybody. For such a society democracy has been devised. Now, in a pre-modern feudal or tribal society all the traditional dependencies exist. Man is not what he has achieved but what his family/tribe biradri is. If that woman who was lashed in Swat would have spoken up she would have acted against the interests of her family, tribe, community. They would have killed her or she would have had to run away very far, may be even have to leave the country. In a pre-modern society you are what your family/community is. When your individual interest and the interest of the familiy/tribe.clan clash, the community prevails. That is good and bad it is good because it gives you help and support, you are never alone. It is bad when you have to sacrifice your personal interest/likes or dislikes for the community. When it comes to voting you vote for the one chosen by the clan, family tribe… and when you get elected you serve the interests of your family, clan, tribe first. Jamil ur Rehman had once a piece in “The News” saying it takes Pakistan 450 years to reach democracy. I don’t know how he has calculated this. but it definitely takes more time than till the next election. And it takes not only time but within that time changes have to be made which result in weakening and breaking up family, biradri tribal and feudal structures. If you don’t want that then democracy will not work. That is why I think we should not accept democracy unquestioned for a society like the one of Pakistan. The changes it requires will change this society completely. You should be clear about that.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:40h, 08 April Reply

    Dr. Robotka, Many thanks for this detailed comment. I am pleased to see that you have confirmed the argument we had presented in the last post of the Democracy in India series (Democracy in India – 7).

    There we raised the issue of the relationship of democratic governance to social equality and independence. We also made the point that there are three dimensions to democratic governance and how one of them is missing in South Asia.

    Our conclusion was that democracy is still playing a crucial albeit very unusual role in India. I hope you will find the time to read that post and give us your feedback.

  • adonis49
    Posted at 14:33h, 13 October Reply

    interesting blog. the main question is how to get over cast, sect, and feudal allegiances so that any representation become democratic? proportional election laws is a good step for all the minorities to revamp their policies to acceed to power by aligning with other parties under agreeable common programs. In any case, quota systems for the highest posts should be inacted until society fabric and economical development encourage a qualitative shift of confidence in belonging to a Nation, one people.
    what about the olygarchic, monarchic, and theocratic regimes that the western powers support for economic interests? I don’t believe democracy is what the western powers care to be established because economic deals become too tightly studies and analyzed by many branches in any democratic society. Diplomatic and political life for harried western powers will become too cumbersome to deal with the “savages”.
    I doubt that the western powers are ready to discuss in details what democracy is and how it can be tailored to specific cultures and civilization. they prefer to deal with abstract concept in serious matters such as democracy and selfdetermination, and freedom and liberty.

  • Keanu
    Posted at 01:27h, 01 December Reply

    Modern democracy is a flawed concept in itself. How can a vote of a someone who doesn’t have any formal education or knowledge of world affairs and vote of some PhD Doctor who understands the problems of the society and understands the world affairs be equal? This is just not right.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:06h, 01 December

      There is no direct correlation between educational levels and responsible voting.

      To this day, in India, it is the poorer, less literate rural population that has turned out in larger numbers than the educated urbanites in elections.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:17h, 01 December

      Keanu: I am not sure I understand the claim that “modern democracy is a flawed concept.” Is the emphasis on ‘modern’ as opposed to ‘older’ forms of democracy which did not suffer from the flaw you have in mind?

      Regarding the equality of votes, this is a very contentious issue. As we know, voting rights were extended very gradually in Western democracies (see this post for a history) but in most developing countries universal suffrage was the starting point after liberation. Opinion is divided on whether this is a problem. I feel this should not be seen exclusively in terms of education. There are many trained professionals who understand very little about the problems of society or the world. Indeed, it is not easy to determine this attribute of a voter and years of schooling is not a reliable proxy. We have to proceed on the assumption that all voters understand their own interest and vote on that basis. The real problem arises when voters are not free to vote independently without fear or favor. This is an essential condition for a democratic system to work and it is this condition that does not hold in most developing countries. When votes are bought and sold or delivered on the basis of affinities and loyalties, the democratic process just hides the underlying politics of a society based on patron-client relationships.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:21h, 02 December

      Keanu: I came across this question put to Tariq Ali and his reply. It provides one answer to your question. I wonder if you agree. The complete interview is here.

      Mara: Now I have some questions about democracy in Pakistan. The argument is often made that democracy is not possible in Pakistan on account of the feudal system, the high illiteracy rate and the lack of institutions that would support a democratic system. What do you think?

      Tariq: Well, look. I don’t believe this because I think in the past people in Pakistan have shown that they are perfectly capable of making their voices heard. When there was an alternative, they supported it. I mean when the People’s Party won the elections of 1970, the people in the Punjab and Sind and in parts of the Frontier Province voted against their landlords. This means they can do it, because they were promised what, food, clothing, shelter, land reform, health, education. That’s what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promised them. They believed him and they voted for his party. The fact that they’re illiterate doesn’t matter. You know lots of illiterate people in our part of the world are actually more intelligent than semi-literate or even sometimes literate people. They have a very strong political instinct. They know who’s on their side and who isn’t. They hoped that Bhutto would bring about these changes, but he didn’t. And that was a massive let down. The same is true of India. When Mrs. Gandhi imposed an emergency in the 70s, people voted her out. So, it’s not that democracy is totally dependent on literacy. That is not the case.

      What is true is that the institutions of democracy in Pakistan are extremely weak. And, that is a problem. And, here I have to say that in the first phase of the new media which emerged in Pakistan, the discussions which took place in the media were very positive. Now they’ve been brought under control again. But that opening did help to transmit ideas and diversity into the country. As a whole, the entire movement to put the Chief Justice back into power would not have been possible had it not been for television, where the demonstrations were covered and people were interviewed. People were proud to be associated with that. Many illiterate people turned out to demand that the Chief Justice be put back into power. This was a struggle that had no link to religion or anything like that. It was a straight forward struggle for constitutional rights and the separation of powers. So, I don’t like anybody saying that our people aren’t ready for democracy. I would sort of rather say the opposite, that the elite in Pakistan have no respect for democracy. And it’s disrespect for democracy that makes ordinary people apathetic because they say it doesn’t make any difference now.

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