It’s not quite the same as the 1990s, but there are plenty of signs to suggest Pakistan returning to the tumultuous politics of those troubled times. For those whose memories of that period are hazy, it is worth recalling precisely how the nascent democratic order that was first put in place in 1988 was slowly and systematically undermined. As is now well-known and documented, elements within the military establishment put considerable time and effort into undermining successive civilian governments, either by sponsoring specific opposition parties and politicians (including one Nawaz Sharif), or through backroom manoeuvres aimed at removing problematic prime ministers through questionable ‘constitutional’ methods such as the invocation of the notorious (and now repealed) 8th Amendment introduced by the Zia regime. Perhaps more importantly, the instability of the 1990s and the continuous travails of Pakistan’s democratic governments could also be attributed to the short-sighted actions of opportunistic parties and politicians who were more than willing to stab their partners and opponents in the back in order to come to power in collusion with the establishment.

When the Musharraf government was brought down in 2008, ushering in a new era of democracy, it was not unreasonable to believe that things would be different this time. With the signing of the Charter of Democracy, for example, it could have been argued that Pakistan’s largest and most popular parties at the time, the PPP and the PML-N, had finally learnt the lessons of history and had come to the realisation that the consolidation of democracy would require them to work together, eschewing alliances with non-democratic forces in favour of strengthening civilian institutions and the process of democratic continuity. Matters were arguably helped by the fact that Musharraf, much more than his predecessors in uniform, had managed to alienate the top leaders of these two parties; after forcing both the Sharifs and Bhuttos into exile, and jailing many of their loyalists, Musharraf had managed to create a situation in which there was little reason to believe either of the two leaders of their parties would be willing to cooperate with an establishment that had victimised them. Even when the NRO was introduced, making it possible for Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan, it was clear at the time that the balance of power between the former Prime Minister and the disgraced dictator was one that favoured the former.

In the last decade, however, it has become increasingly evident that the optimism of those early moments was misplaced. Since 2008, Pakistan’s experience of democracy has been characterised by a state of almost constant instability that historians of this era will undoubtedly judge to have been almost entirely artificial in its provenance. Disputes over the NRO, Memogate, the conflict over the PPP government’s refusal to write a letter to the Swiss authorities regarding the alleged corruption of Asif Zardari, the first abortive dharna by Tahir-ul-Qadri before the 2013 elections, the successive dharnas by the PTI over the results of the 2013 elections, the return of Qadri on at least two separate occasions, the role played by the Supreme Court in the Panama Case, the transparently engineered defections in the Balochistan Assembly, and the frankly worrying wave of protests spearheaded by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik, all have consistently undermined the authority of the two civilian governments that came to power after 2008. Thus far, these crises have claimed the scalps of two Prime Ministers, various ministers and functionaries, and a growing list of parliamentarians.

To be clear, the PPP and PML-N governments can be rightly criticised for their failings in terms of governance and their evident inability to effectively deal with the allegations of corruption that have dogged their leaders. Similarly, it would be wrong to suggest that any and all transgressions by an elected government be ignored in the name of democratic continuity. After all, democracy requires a robust system of checks and balances to function properly, and it is not inherently problematic for the courts and the media to scrutinise the conduct of elected leaders. However, in the Pakistani context, where there is a clear civil-military imbalance and a history of authoritarian rule buttressed by pliant judiciary and justified by calls for accountability and the need to navigate Pakistan through supposedly existential crises, it is important to remain wary of developments that could potentially derail the democratic order once more.

What is more regrettable than the convenient emergence and re-emergence of threats to the government (Tahir-ul-Qadri being a prime example) is how the apparent unity that characterised the approach taken by the mainstream parties to democracy appears to have been shattered in the past ten years. While questions have always surrounded the PTI in terms of its relationship with the military establishment, it is disheartening to see the PPP and the PML-N at loggerheards once again, not as opponents engaged in constructive conflict through parliamentary means that could only bode well for Pakistan’s future, but as antagonists willing to employ any and all means to secure power. At some level, this particular issue is one for which blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the country’s civilian political leadership; once in power, both the PPP and the PML-N reverted to type by attempting to centralize power and victimize their opponents, breeding the kind of distrust that made the democratic instability of the 1990s possible.

It is often forgotten that democracy is a process, not an event. As governments are voted in and out of office and the system chugs along through a regular, peaceful, and institutionalized transfer of power decided by electoral competition, history suggests that governance slowly improves as parties are forced to deliver results as they compete for votes. This process is accompanied by a consolidation of democratic institutions, as parliament, the executive, and the courts discharge their duties without external interference, and negotiate the boundaries of their respective domains of authority. This all takes time but even in Pakistan, a case could be made for saying that this process has begun in the past decade. While all is not lost just yet, escalating instability on the eve of elections later this year does not bode well for democratic consolidation in Pakistan, and there is a real possibility that the small gains that have been made could be reversed.


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