Written by Filippo Boni.

On 28 July, less than three weeks before Pakistan celebrated the 70th anniversary of independence, the country was holding its breath regarding the Supreme Court verdict on the corruption charges against the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family. Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from holding public office by a unanimous decision of five Supreme Court judges, and he stepped down as Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The ouster of Nawaz Sharif is once again a powerful reminder of the role played by non-elected institutions (the judiciary and the military alike) in the country’s political dynamics.

For those following closely Pakistan’s political history, this did not come as surprise. No Prime Minister was ever able to serve his/her full five years in office (although Bhutto’s decision to go to the polls in 1977 was of his own making). Corruption charges, or incompetence, were often used by Pakistan’s judiciary, in tandem with the powerful military, as the basis to oust elected representatives. Mr Sharif himself was dismissed twice in the 1990s, the last time in October 1999 by General Musharraf’s military coup. At the time in which Pakistan and India are celebrating 70 years of independence, it is an important moment to reflect on why Pakistan’s democracy has struggled to emerge and to ponder on what prevented the consolidation of fully functioning democratic institutions.

The legacy of Partition

There are several underlying structural factors, some of which are still relevant nowadays, that explain why Pakistan’s democracy has struggled to take roots.

In 1947, Pakistan faced serious security challenges to its territorial integrity. India was the biggest concern for Pakistani leaders because of its greater military power and its territorial claims over Kashmir. On the other hand, Afghanistan had irredentist claims on Pakistani territories along the porous border between the two countries, the so-called Durand Line. As a result, all Pakistani governments gave primary importance to the defence needs of the country in order to ensure Pakistan’s safety and survival. This enabled the growth of the military which soon acquired a role well beyond their constitutional remit.

From an institutional perspective, an agency-oriented explanation points to the lack of a strong leader able to unify the nation, as happened in India with Jawaharlal Nehru. Within a couple of years after its establishment as an independent country, Pakistan faced a serious and deep crisis of political leadership due to the unexpected death of its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and, few years later, of Liaqat Ali Khan. If we turn our attention to the Muslim League, because of the predominant role played by elites within the party, most of whom lacked personal networks within the territories that because Pakistan, the latter was not able to transform itself into a truly institutional pillar of Pakistan as, for instance, happened in India with the Congress Party.

A pattern emerged according to which the military establishment created and nurtured political proxies to legitimise military rule during authoritarian spells, or act as a constant thorn in the flank of the ruling party under a civilian dispensation. Examples of these dynamics can be found in the Republican Party under Ayub Khan, the IJI under Zia-ul-Haq, the PML-Q under Musharraf and, in recent years, the PTI, led by Imran Khan. The latter famously claimed that people would ‘distribute sweets’ if the Army took over the country.

Pakistan’s post-2008 political configuration

Pakistan’s democracy is now less fragile than it was at the time of independence, but certainly not less prone to political turmoil. Some of the abovementioned factors, including India as the main geopolitical foe and weak political parties and politicians, remain. What is also interesting to notice is that in the most recent episode, Mr Sharif was disqualified under Articles 62 and 63 of the Pakistani Constitution, as amended by former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The latter was the one who introduced Nawaz Sharif into the Pakistani political system. Mr Sharif’s political career was essentially ended by the rules introduced by his former patron, ones that the PML-N fought to retain during parliamentary discussion of the 18th Amendment. Does this mean that history is bound to repeat itself? Is Pakistan’s chequered democratic past the prologue?

Not all is gloomy. Even if at a rather intermittent pace, democratic processes have strengthened in Pakistan’s post-2008 setup. Similar dynamics to those in the Panama Papers case were at play in 2012, when then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was convicted of contempt of court and disqualified from office for not reopening Swiss-money laundering inquiries into former President Zardari. Yet, the 2013 elections went ahead and, more importantly, were the first time in which a civilian government was voted out of office after completing its five year term and was replaced by another civilian government. Fast forward five years and a similar situation is unfolding, with elections due to be held in 2018, and with the country in the hands of an interim PM. In addition, the appointment by the Prime Minister of two consecutive army chiefs, as well as the passage of the 18th Amendment represent important milestones in Pakistan’s democratic transition.

What is however more worrying is that the constitutional tools used to disqualify Mr Sharif, could be deployed in the future against other politicians. Sharif’s dismissal sets a precedent. After the 18th Amendment removed Article 58(b) (which gave the President the power to dismiss the PM and dissolve the National Assembly), Articles 62 and 63 can become the new tools to get rid of elected representatives and civilian dispensations. This shows how entrenched the legacy of Pakistan’s military dictatorships in the country’s political processes is and explains the difficulties in strengthening democratic mechanisms in the country. On a more general note, the ouster of Nawaz Sharif is once again a powerful reminder of the role played by non-elected institutions (the judiciary and the military alike) in the country’s political dynamics.

Another element of continuity with Pakistan’s past is the dynastic nature of politics (a feature shared with India). Those who wanted Nawaz Sharif removed may be disappointed to see another Sharif as Pakistani PM. The political dynasty of the ‘Sharifs’ might continue through Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab Chief Minister and the former Prime Minister’s brother. According to a Gallup Pakistan poll in mid-July 2017, 59 percent of Pakistanis would support a PML-N decision to appoint the younger Sharif as party leader. The Punjab Chief Minister was the man who vocally confronted the military on the handling of militancy in the country; he has also been very proactive in the relationship with China, in the context of CPEC.

Pakistan’s septuagenarian history of independence is going through another critical juncture. Democracy is not yet the only game in town and the Supreme Court’s decision dealt a blow to Pakistan’s democratic consolidation. While direct military intervention in politics seems highly unlikely, the fact that the military has found in its interest to exercise its power less overtly means that the chronic political uncertainty characterising Pakistani politics is here to stay.

Dr Filippo Boni (@FilippoBoni1) holds a PhD in International Relations from the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. His recently defended PhD thesis looked at civil-military relations in the context of Sino-Pakistani ties. Filippo’s latest peer-reviewed article on Sino-Pakistani relations and the port of Gwadar can be accessed here. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.


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