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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Restoring Pakistan’s Democracy: Learning from the Past and Shaping the Future

Exploring the evolution of Pakistan's political landscape, from the exceptional 1970 assembly to the recent challenges faced by subsequent assemblies. This analysis highlights the decline in legislative effectiveness, lack of accountability, and the need for reform to revive the nation's democratic spirit.

With the dissolution of the National Assembly on August 9, 2023, the political circus finally reached its conclusion. According to Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a stalwart of the PML-N and former Prime Minister, this assembly was deemed the worst ever, as it failed to legislate effectively for the electorate that put them in power. While the nation continues to grapple with the repercussions of the Zia Amendments, the depleted house managed to pass around 70 bills, primarily individual-specific, in the last ten days of its term – a period that could be labeled as the “Bajwa Amendments.”

The assembly that emerged after the 1970 elections stand out historically as one of the best and should be revered as a role model. Looking back, elections were originally scheduled for October 1958 under the 1956 constitution. However, the country instead fell under the grip of military rule. The first usurper not only nullified the unanimously agreed-upon constitution but also imposed his own objectionable version in 1962. Subsequently, due to extensive street protests in 1968, the powerful dictator was compelled to step down in March 1969, marking Pakistan’s transition from the first to the second Martial Law.

Read more: Why are Pakistan’s elections under a shadow?

Understanding the matter better

General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan discarded Ayub Khan’s constitution and announced elections based on Adult Franchise in 1970. This election produced a split mandate, resulting in a fair and free electoral process. The results were unexpected, with the Awami League (AL) securing 167 out of 169 National Assembly seats in East Pakistan, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) winning 86 seats in West Pakistan. Delays in the transfer of power led to civil unrest in the Eastern Wing, ultimately culminating in the disintegration of Pakistan.

As the largest party remaining after the breakup, the PPP was entrusted with forming the government for the 5th Assembly. This period saw exceptional parliamentary leadership on both sides, with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and Abdul Wali Khan (AWK) at the helm. During this era, two constitutions were formulated (in 1972 and 1973), and the level of debates and people-friendly legislation set exemplary standards. The zenith of the democratic order was reached in 1975, only to be abruptly halted by Military Action in Baluchistan and the dismissal of the government in NWFP (now KP).

In early 1977, ZAB surprised many by prematurely dissolving the assemblies, thereby concluding the 5th National Assembly – the birthplace of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the first constitutional democracy in the Islamic world. However, the constitutional and orderly transition of power remains a significant challenge for the republic to this day.

Following the removal of the elected government of ZAB, the country fell into the hands of its third usurper. The subsequent assemblies (from the 6th to the 15th) marked a regression of the democratic order. While Shahid Khaqan Abbasi expressed remorse for their underperformance, many members passed bills without comprehending their contents, leading to a dearth of substantial debates. From a public perspective, legislative efforts seemed aimless and lacked direction.

Initially, Draconian Clauses of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) were eliminated, only to be reintroduced later to target the opposition. This decline in governance will persist unless the focus shifts from serving the establishment to serving the people. Unprecedentedly, the Prime Minister visited the GHQ to secure “Vote Ki Izzat” (the respect of votes), highlighting the distrust in the electoral process despite clear time limits set by the constitution for the interim setup (60 or 90 days).

Read more: US told Pakistan to remove Imran Khan from power – Intercept

The decline in performance continues to haunt, and members of the 15th assembly will need more than rhetoric to justify their political journey, which appears to have hit rock bottom. Since the establishment of the artificial capital of the republic, a culture of allocating plots to gain loyalty has emerged. An episode involving ZAB, the leader of the house, and AWK, the leader of the opposition, exemplified this. While ZAB offered a plot for AWK to build a house, it was declined due to financial constraints. Subsequently, ZAB provided two plots, suggesting selling one to fund the construction. Despite these gestures, neither ZAB nor AWK acquired any plots after the 5th assembly dissolved.

During this time, no legislator was charged with financial corruption, and policies were devised for the common good. For instance, Health Minister Sheikh Rashid Sr introduced the Generic Medicine scheme, reducing prices. Interestingly, after fifty years, Narendra Modi introduced a similar scheme in India. Khan Qayyum Khan, as Interior Minister, introduced significant passport reforms, enabling citizens to travel freely. Those benefiting from these reforms in the 1970s now contribute substantially to foreign exchange remittances.

While the nation honors the legislators of the 5th assembly, it views the subsequent ones (from the 6th to the 15th) with disdain. Publishing a list of elected members alongside their assets and perks before and after their parliamentary tenure is essential. Some members have never spoken in the house, rendering the legislative process a mere circus devoid of meaningful work. Apologies alone are insufficient to rectify this performance gap that has marred the nation. Retribution is necessary; embezzled wealth must be returned, and non-performing members should be replaced. To progress, order must be reinstated, necessitating a credible ballot – much like the one that birthed the adept 1970 assembly, which provided Pakistan with its constitution and a democratic roadmap. The nation and its people should take precedence. Those who haven’t served diligently should be removed from the stage to conclude this circus once and for all.


The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation. He can be reached at  fmaliks@hotmail.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.