Pakistan has once again found itself at a crossroads. The political instability generated after the removal of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from office via a Vote of No Confidence is a continuation of a tradition in Pakistani politics where a crisis raises its head after every three to four years cycle. Political instability, economic crises and derailing security situations are perhaps the most commonly used words in the country’s discourse. Pakistan has witnessed four martial laws, a civil war, continuing detours to IMF for bailout packages, judicial activism and a brutal militant insurgency.
Political stability in Pakistan has a standard period of eight years in case of a military dictatorship and a mere three to four years in case of a democratically elected civilian government. The first-ever bad omen for Pakistan was the assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 and the downfall of the Pakistan Muslim League in the fifties.
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Looking at the excerpts from the history
This decade is generally associated with the country’s alignment with the US-led capitalist bloc and its foreign policy implications. Often forgotten is the embarrassing tale of a parade of Pakistani PMs staged by President Iskander Mirza during this period. The Republic’s first constitution was promulgated in 1956 and with it, Iskander Mirza became the first-ever habitant of the President’s Office. Mirza’s tenure ushered in an era of political instability, undermining of the constitution as well as democratic values and the presidency’s gross interference in the executive’s domain.
He changed four Prime Ministers in two years, prompting a rather infamous jab from Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru. in 1958, General Ayub Khan sent President Mirza packing after martial law. For almost the entirety of the decade, General Ayub Khan reigned with an iron fist. Miss Fatima Jinnah challenged him in the 1965 Presidential elections and lost. It is alleged that Miss Jinnah lost the elections due to rigging and the use of intelligence agencies to manipulate the political situation in Ayub Khan’s favor. This marked the beginning of intelligence agencies’ role in the country’s domestic politics, which still continues to this day. Miss Jinnah won the popular vote, but General Ayub won via the electoral college.
He resigned in 1969 after countrywide student demonstrations. Another martial law was imposed, and military dictator General Yahya Khan took over. The troubles which eventually led to the secession of East Pakistan became exacerbated during General Ayub’s reign with General Yahya’s tenure serving as the fatal blow. In fact, Mujib ur Rehman gained traction during Ayub’s tenure and presented his famous six points. The martial law imposed by General Yahya in 1969 and his short tenure was a continuation of Pakistan’s political instability, which quickly escalated into a full-fledged armed struggle between East and West Pakistan.
Popular politician and former cabinet minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s refusal to accept the results of the 1970’s general elections proved the final nail in the coffin. An armed struggle that began with the disastrous Operation Searchlight in March 1971, ended with the succession of East Pakistan into Bangladesh on December 16th, 1971. General Yahya resigned, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became president and chief martial law administrator. The tenure of Prime Minister Bhutto saw some semblance of political stability, though much like Pakistan’s track record, it was short-lived and ended in 1977 when Chief of Army Staff General Zia ul Haq imposed martial law and had Bhutto hanged over a politically motivated murder case.
General Zia ruled for ten years and reoriented the state, its institutions and society into an Islamic identity. This was the time when Pakistani nationalism became synonymous with pan-Islamism. The case of confused identity still plagues Pakistan. The prevailing religious extremism and intolerance in Pakistan are rooted in General Zia’s ten-year dictatorship. After his death in 1988, Benazir Bhutto was elected PM the same year; contrary to expectations, the decade of democracy that ensued was nothing short of a circus. Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif both alternated amongst themselves the post of the country’s premier. Bhutto government was dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and Mian Nawaz Sharif was elected PM in 1990.
Amid increased political instability Army Chief General Hameed Kakar forced both Prime Minister Sharif and President Ishaq to resign in 1993. As a result of the general elections, Benazir Bhutto was once again sworn in as PM, only to be dismissed once again from office in 1997 by President Laghari. Nawaz Sharif was once again elected PM, only to be disposed of via a martial law imposed by Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf in October 1999. General Musharaf remained in power till 2008. This period much like the Ayub and Zia dictatorship, witnessed economic growth fueled primarily by US aid. The year 2007 proved to be disastrous for Pakistan. President Musharaf dismissed Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry, which kick-started a lawyers’ movement in the country.
President Musharaf sanctioned a military operation in the Lal Masjid Sanctuary in Islamabad, which became one of the main drivers of the Islamic militant insurgency in Pakistan. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan was formed under the leadership of Bait Ullah Mehsud; the TTP still remains a major security challenge for Pakistan. Lastly, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a public rally on December 27th. If anyone felt that Pakistan would finally see some semblance of stability after the horrific year, the next few years wreaked even greater havoc on Pakistan’s citizens, and the nation’s morale, combined with the incompetent government of the Pakistan People’s Party elected in 2008. The country witnessed a wave of violence like never before. TTP led a reign of terror and bloodshed in the country.
Suicide bombings had become a norm
For the first time ever, India was no longer Pakistan’s main security and militants within the country’s border became an existential threat. Though democracy had once again kick-started, true adherence to democratic principles and the rule of law remained a pipe dream. It seemed that for the first time, a democratically elected PM would complete his term, but the Supreme Court of Pakistan dashed these hopes and ousted the PM in 2012. The curse on Pakistani Prime Ministers is so potent that even till 2022, not a single elected prime minister has completed his five-year constitutional term. As a result of the 2013 General Elections, Nawaz Sharif was elected PM for the third time.
This time former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan broke the dichotomy of the two-party system a carved a piece out for his political party Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf (PTI). In 2014 Pakistan launched a decisive military operation titled as Zarb e Azb in tribal areas. The APS Peshawar tragedy further strengthened Pakistan’s resolve, and the tribal areas were cleared off of terrorists and militants by 2017. The security situation largely improved; however, in 2017, political instability peaked once again when the tradition of Pakistani PMs being unable to complete their constitutional term continued, PM Sharif was disqualified by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on corruption charges.
After the 2018 general elections, Imran Khan was elected prime minister of the country. His popular anti-corruption drive failed to take off while the dire economic situation began to achieve some semblance of stability. It seemed that he would complete his term, and Pakistan will finally witness a transition from one elected PM who completed his five years tenure to another.
However, the month of April witnessed PM Khan being ousted via a Vote of No Confidence Motion and Shehbaz Sharif elected as new prime minister by the Parliament. Former PM Khan’s ouster mobilized his core base and ushered in a movement against an alleged US conspiracy to remove him from power. With extreme political polarization and an increased political agitation by the former prime minister Imran Khan, general elections seem like the only solution.
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The new coalition government of Shehbaz Sharif is not only indecisive and paralyzed regarding key policy decisions. This all is in the midst of an economic crisis that, if not dealt with, could leave the country bankrupt. The security situation has already worsened in the country since the onset of this year; the Baloch militants, TTP, ISKP and even a Sindhi militant group, the Sindh Revolutionary Army, have conducted terrorist incidents. For the younger generation, the existing crisis is a shock that exposes the instability of the system. However, for those who have studied the country’s history, the current political crisis is just one other phase in the continuous cycle. Pakistan needs to put its house in order; there is only too much disruption a system can tolerate before self-destructing.
The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.