The current PTI government needs to consolidate democratic norms, and part with its short-sighted style of bypassing parliament. In an unprecedented fashion, the PTI government instituted direct elections of local government heads in KP and Punjab, which is a step in the right direction. However, this was operationalised through an ordinance, rather than being passed via parliamentary consensus, and an opportunity to gain more democratic legitimacy was lost. If institutional democracy needs to be consolidated, the ruling party has to take on board oppositional political forces and their viewpoints. Consensus-based decisions are more difficult to manoeuvre in the future and become extremely central in a setting such as Pakistan’s nascent democratic framework.

There is no end-game to the process of democratic consolidation. Pakistan’s political transitions from direct military rule to civilian rule, and the last two formal civilian transitions of power, are an aberration from the historical norm of military preponderance in the political system. However, these civilian transitions of power cannot be categorised as purely democratic, because of the PPP-regime from 2008 to 2013, and the PML-N regime from 2013-2018, continued to face obstacles in governance and whilst formulating foreign policy and managing regional security as the military establishment continued to intervene. No Prime Minister has finished his/her own term in Pakistani parliamentary history, and Yousaf Raza Gilani’s ouster in a controversial judicial ruling that held him to have committed contempt of court, as well as Nawaz Sharif’s removal in a judicial ruling that suggested that he held assets beyond known means, were controversial at best. In Yousaf Raza’s case, there was the pre-existing matter of the lingering Memogate scandal. When the then-premier refused to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen the SGS-Cotecna case, (involving siphoning of 60 million dollars to Swiss banks allegedly received in the awarding of contract to the aforesaid company for pre-shipment inspection on site of the exports to Pakistan by the then-President Asif Ali Zardari) the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled him out of the office on refusing to comply with its wishes. Nawaz Sharif’s reputation was tarnished domestically after the Panama Papers scandal regarding money laundering broke out. After the Supreme Court formed a Joint Investigation Team, which controversially comprised military intelligence and ISI representatives, his ouster was set in stone as the court ruled that he failed to provide his trail of legally earned money. As a consequence, he did not fulfil the constitutional requirement of being ‘Sadiq’ and ‘Ameen’ as per the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution of Pakistan, resulting in disqualification from office. In both cases, the military establishment’s role in manoeuvring the process was alleged, however, the governments were allowed to continue with different premiers set in place.

While Pakistan’s fledgeling democracy can be categorised as Praetorian, hybrid, or limited, the successful completion of terms by two regimes leading onto the third, is a watershed moment in Pakistani political history, and static explanations such as the presence of an omnipotent military which dominates proceedings, as well as an idealist position that the politicians now rule completely, both fall short of the mark while we attempt to judge the macro-level power configurations through which Pakistan is ruled. Historical evidence related to agency of post-military civilian regimes in the Pakistani context, suggests that a) constitutional enclaves further strengthening the military even when it was not in power aided the military in securing its preponderance. Moreover, b) political parties which were directly sponsored by the military during its periods of direct rule were used by the establishment in periods of ostensibly civilian rule to limit the agency of elected governments.

On the other hand, the military establishment continued to find allies and sympathisers within the ruling political governments to tamper with their agency and confidence. Whilst these factors persisted in all three post-martial law civilian governments, the factor that led to a differing outcome in the 2008-2013 elected regime, as opposed to the other two regimes, was the presence of successful alliance building between the PML-N and the PPP according to the Charter of Democracy. Both political parties agreed to give up the policy of siding with the military establishment, as was the case in the 1990s, against each other, and instituted constitutional reforms to strengthen the federation and elected politicians. Whilst the parliamentary coalition between the PPP and PML-N broke down due to political differences regarding the issue of reinstatement of judges, both parties showed unprecedented maturity to let the democratic government finish tenure and hand over power amicably through the electoral process.

The 2013-2018 government of the PML-N managed to finish its term amidst challenges to its legitimacy including the rise of religious fanatics in the political arena, the dismissal of their first-choice Prime Minister, as well as a very chequered external environment, particularly tensions with neighbouring countries and a massive deficit on the current account expenditure and balance of trade, thereby leading to alarming reduction in foreign exchange reserves. In the winter of 2014, the opposition party, the PTI, tried to rile up anti-government pressure by organising protests in the federal capital on the issue of alleged rigging in the 2013 General Elections. The PPP, sitting in opposition as the leading party, and the ruling PML-N managed to resist alleged overtures to overthrow the government by combining in the parliament with most of the political spectrum, and sending a unified message to powers that attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the nascent democratic project. Whilst commentators suggest that with the passage of the 21st amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan and the formation of summary military courts to deal with the cancer of terrorism and religious extremism, a soft-coup was put in place, it could be argued that the military was now looking to operate from within the parliamentary system and institutional democracy was becoming the most important game in town.

While the political system severely lacks the necessary performance indicators for it to be categorised as a liberal democracy, or a substantive democracy, the progress of the process of “formal, procedural democracy” is well on its way towards consolidation. While further consolidation requires the continuation of successful alliance building amongst the political parties on key goals, amongst other things, a political system can mature democratically only when the elected representatives are in full control of policy matters pertaining to civilians, while the army assumes its strict professional role whilst maintaining fidelity with international best practices regarding diplomacy and national security. In the meanwhile, it must be kept under notice that externalities such as global events, transnational interests and geopolitical forces continue to influence domestic politics, and consequently, democratic consolidation. The Pakistani state is economically weak and the institutional edifice on which it stands is extremely prone to crumbling under the weight of international and material pressures. A robust political system which can develop positive inertia so as to stand its own ground can only be if democratic governance can find its roots and the system neutralises the culture of authoritarianism that has been instituted, formally, and informally, by the civil and military bureaucracies, in the past. The onus is also on political parties to institute reforms within their own cadres and fix their internal democratic deficits.