When people look back on the decade of democracy Pakistan has experienced since 2008, they will probably see that the experience was a mixed bag. On the one hand, much like the 1990s, this period was characterized by a constant focus on civilian corruption and alleged misdeeds; from Memogate and the Swiss Letter to electoral rigging and the Panama Leaks, the governments and leadership of the PPP and the PML-N have both been subjected to considerable scrutiny and have ultimately come to be associated with precisely the kinds of venality that has discredited Pakistan’s democratic regimes in the past. It might also be fair to claim that not much has actually been accomplished by these governments; corruption might be more palatable if those engaged in it were actually good at performing their duties, but many would argue that both the PPP and the PML-N, despite making a lot of noise about their accomplishments, have failed to actually generate any kind of substantive improvement in the areas that matter most, such as health, education, and the provision of public services.

These and other criticisms are not unfounded, nor do they apply solely to the two parties that have been at power at the federal level. Indeed, parties like the MQM and the PTI are not without their own share of detractors, many of whom would echo the sentiments expressed about the PPP and PML-N. However, a more balanced view of the past few years would show that Pakistan’s tumultuous, halting, and sometimes painful transition to democracy has not been all bad. For example, it is pertinent to note that the kind of ‘accountability’ that has been deployed against the PPP and PML-N – resulting in the resignation or dismissal of at least three Prime Ministers – has not resulted in the broader destabilization that resulted from some actions in the 1990s. Moreover, it would be against the spirit of democracy to suggest that those accused of corruption should not be tried and punished as necessary and while it is certainly possible to question the motives and the methods through which the PPP and PML-N have been targeted, particularly in a context where the shadow cast by the military establishment over politics remains a long one, bringing the leaders of these parties before courts has set an important precedent for the future. It can only be hoped that the arbitrary dismissals of the past will become a distant memory, and that the institutional clashes between parliament, the judiciary, and the executive will ultimately yield a durable balance of power that can underpin a more just and impartial democratic order. Put differently, even if the reasons behind the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif are, for example, dubious, the manner in which he was removed from power could conceivably be used to hold other leaders accountable in a context where the motivation for such action is less suspect.

When considering what has been achieved by ten years of democracy, it is again possible to point towards some positive developments amidst the general sense of despair. The PPP government was able to pass the 18th Amendment, perhaps the most significant legislative achievement in Pakistan in recent memory, and also managed to preside over the passage of the 20th Amendment and the formation of the most consensus-based, if still problematic, Election Commission in Pakistan’s history. Both the PPP and the PML-N have also made small but not insignificant changes to other aspects of the law, moving in the right direction in important areas like preventing violence against women. Similarly, while the PPP might not fare well in an assessment of its economic performance, the PML-N might reasonably be able to claim that while it may not have been able to properly address the structural issues that continue to plague the economy, it has also not driven it into the ground. The same is true for infrastructural development, where the PML-N and even the PTI would not be wrong to state that their initiatives, contentious as the might be, have resulted in improvements to some areas of public service delivery in large parts of the country.

Bringing all of this up is not intended to induce a particularly rosy view of democracy in Pakistan, nor is it an attempt to insulate the mainstream parties and their leaders from the many criticisms that are rightly directed towards them. Instead, the aim is to simply point out that democracy has not been anywhere near as bad as its many detractors make it out to be, especially when comparing it with the only alternative on offer in Pakistan, namely military rule. More importantly, it also serves as a reminder that democratization is a process, not an event, and that it takes time for democratic institutions, from parties to parliament and from the courts to the bureaucracy, to mature and become more representative, accountable, and efficient entities.

Having said all of this, there are some areas of genuine concern that continue to undermine democracy in Pakistan, and which currently show no signs of being addressed in any meaningful way. It is clear, for example, that there is little appetite for, or ability to, tackle the serious grievances that continue to be expressed by the smaller provinces and the country’s ethnic minorities. The situation in Balochistan appears to be no closer to resolution than before and, as the Pashtun sit-in in Islamabad over the killing of Naqeeb Masud shows, the racist stereotyping and scapegoating that has led to many Pashtuns and Afghan refugees being labelled as fanatics and terrorists continues unabated. At a more general level, the conduct of the security services remains a matter of great concern, with the routine disappearance of activists and the arbitrary use of force to silence dissent flying in the face of any concern for human rights or democratic norms.

Elsewhere, the elite domination of the economy and politics also continues unimpeded; Pakistan’s political parties are hubs of dynastic privilege, and it isabundantly obvious that the gains made by the economy in recent years have been disproportionately accruing to the wealthiest sections of the populace. A consequence of this has been the continuation of a mode of politics that, despite some improvement, remains most unresponsive to popular demands and concerns. This problem is exacerbated by the continued existence of a state apparatus that, for all its reach and capacity, remains woefully unsuited to the task of actually governing the country. Polices may be good or bad, but the distinction becomes moot when their implementation is simply not possible.

Finally, while the democratic system has been able to weather some arguably existential storms, persistent political conflict remains a significant threat to democratic continuity and institution-building. Again, inasmuch as this is reflective of the continued influence of the military establishment and a long legacy of authoritarian rule, there is little reason to believe Pakistan’s civilian leaders have been able to do much to alter the civil-military balance of power. Until this particular conflict is resolved, it is likely that democracy in Pakistan will continue to be rocked by crises and instability.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.