Pakistan: A Land of Dented Democracy and Increasing Polarization

NESA Center Alumni Publication
Maida Farid (Consultant and an Independent Researcher)
22 June 2023

Pluralism is a key feature of democracy, that is often accompanied by tolerance. These ideas are intertwined, as a pluralistic society acknowledges and respects the diverse opinions, beliefs, and interests of its people. However, when pluralism lacks tolerance and regard for the rights of other groups, it can lead to political polarization.  Political polarization occurs when there is a deep divide between different ideological or political groups, and there is little to no room for negotiation or finding common ground within the political system. In such a scenario, the lack of tolerance and respect for differing viewpoints can hinder the functioning of democracy. Polarized politics can be understood as a growing divide between people with different political views, leading to an environment of mistrust and animosity. It often involves zero-sum disagreements on various policies and rules within the political system. This phenomenon is not limited to any one country but is a global trend. Even the world’s oldest democracies, such as the United States, have faced challenges posed by polarized politics. Pakistan, with its turbulent history of civil-military relations, military interventions, ineffective civilian governments, and linguistic and ethnonational divides, is no exception to polarized politics and the challenges facing democracy. The socio-political fabric of Pakistan is greatly polarized on all levels, from the political elite to the masses, with a noticeable lack of consensus on fundamental democratic norms.

In Pakistan’s context, political polarization can be better understood as a top-down phenomenon rather than a bottom-up one. Throughout the country’s history, political elites have shaped narratives and influenced public sentiments. Thus, political polarization among the masses depends on what occurs in the corridors of power which penetrates the social fabric and polarizes the masses.

The struggle for power between state elites (such as the establishment and judiciary) and political parties can be seen as the primary level of political polarization in Pakistan. Due to this polarization and a lack of consensus, Pakistan has experienced prolonged influence of state institutions in political affairs, including direct military interventions, and judicial activism. The seventy-five years of Pakistan’s history have witnessed limited periods of political harmony and convergence between state institutions and political parties. Pakistan’s journey towards its first constitution took nine years due to a lack of agreement on the basic mode of governance between state institutions.  The parliament, which is meant to represent the people, has often succumbed to external pressures. Parties in power tend to avoid crossing a certain point to maintain their position and not antagonize the institutions. Moreover, the long history of martial law has further divided political parties into pro-establishment and anti-establishment factions.

Pakistan’s political system was established on democratic principles, but it is questionable if the country has experienced true democracy. Instead, Pakistan has had various forms of democracy. Mohammed Wasim in his book Political Conflict in Pakistan refers to democracy in Pakistan as “Establishmentarian Democracy.” He describes different variants of democracy briefly mentioned below:

  • Direct Military Rule: Pakistan’s political landscape has seen various forms of governance throughout its history. Direct military rule was imposed on the country for a total of 17 years, with General Ayub Khan leading from 1958 to 1962, General Yahya Khan from 1969 to 1971, General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1985, and General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2002.
  • Military-bureaucratic oligarchy: During the early years of Pakistan’s independence, a bureaucratic polity with an elected government existed for 11 years, from 1947 to 1958. However, this period was characterized by a military-bureaucratic oligarchy, where power was concentrated within the military and bureaucracy.
  • Military government under a civilian president: Another form of governance witnessed in Pakistan was military government under a civilian president, following the King’s party model. This lasted for 16 years, with General Ayub Khan serving as the president from 1962 to 1969, General Zia-ul-Haq from 1985 to 1988, and General Pervez Musharraf from 2002 to 2008.
  • Elected governments under civilian presidents: where the rule of the Trica model was followed, involving the establishment, judiciary, and parliament. This lasted for 11 years, with Benazir Bhutto serving as the president from 1988 – 1990, Nawaz Sharif from 1990 to 1993, Benazir Bhutto again from 1993 to 1996, followed by a caretaker government in 1996-1997, and Nawaz Sharif again from 1997 to 1999.
  • Elected governments that constantly faced military tensions: For a period of 10 years, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) held power from 2008 to 2013, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) from 2013 to 2018.
  • Two years of an elected government and the establishment seemingly on the same page: This occurred from 2018 to 2021, during the tenure of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. However, this short-lived marriage of convenience had a bitter ending.

Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and chairman of PTI was removed from office through a vote of no confidence in the national assembly. Initially, he alleged it was a U.S. conspiracy aimed at removing him from power. However, a few months later, he shifted the blame to the Pakistan army and effectively gathered a substantial political following that openly expresses its disapproval of the military. What sets Mr. Khan apart from other political leaders is his embrace of populist politics. The populist tendencies of Khan’s leadership have never been more evident before than now. From circumnavigating the constitutional processes, questioning, and targeting constitutional structures, and creating binaries among the masses as outsiders and insiders, Imran Khan seems to have checked all the boxes of a populist leader. Moreover, the tone and the political discourse that Khan has introduced in Pakistani politics are unprecedented.

The current political crisis in Pakistan is being referred to as extraordinary and unprecedented by some, while many political experts and journalists believe it is a recurring loop or vicious cycle that repeats itself every few years. What sets the current crisis apart from past events is the unprecedented level of openness to the public and the public outrage against the military institutions. In a recent event on 9 May 2023, Imran Khan was arrested by Islamabad high court under some corruption charges. The arrest of Khan led to significant outrage and anger among supporters of the PTI. The situation took a chaotic turn when attacks were carried out on the Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, and the Corps Commander House, also known as Jinnah House, in Lahore. These events not only caused havoc for those involved in the attacks but also for the PTI’s political leadership. Many PTI leaders were arrested, imprisoned, released on bail, and re-arrested, and many have quit not only their political party but politics altogether.

Those responsible for the attacks on the GHQ and Corps Commander House are being tried in military courts rather than civil courts. Furthermore, thousands of PTI supporters have been arrested in less than a week. While these actions are condemnable, it is crucial to question where the problem lies. Looking back at recent history, when the PTI itself was in power, a long list of false cases was made against their opposition. Many people were falsely imprisoned, accused, and persecuted. At that time, when it suited the PTI’s interests, they did not take any measures to stop or at least condemn the mistreatment of their political rivals. On the contrary, they not only endorsed it but also threatened severe consequences for their political opposition if they did not comply. It now appears that the actions they took against their political rivals are returning to haunt them, albeit with greater speed and severity. And now the current government is doing the same.

The Pakistan army, previously an obscure force operating from behind the scenes, has thrust itself into the public eye, shedding its taboo status and becoming a subject of open discussion. The former Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, on the verge of retirement, boldly accepted complete accountability for the chaotic state of politics. He reassured the public that the army would prioritize its core responsibilities and refrain from any political involvement. This declaration initially brought a sense of renewed hope, akin to a breath of fresh air. However, the relief was short-lived.

Immersed in a pool of problems and formidable challenges, it seems difficult to pinpoint a direct and singular solution for Pakistan. The challenges faced are multifaceted and demand an intricate solution. While many solutions have been proposed by the experts over the years, there appears to be an absolute lack of political will to address these issues. The underlying reason for this indifferent attitude is that personal and short-term goals consistently take precedence over national and long-term goals.

Nevertheless, to bring democracy into practice and reinstate the sanctity of institutional boundaries, Pakistan needs to take certain measures. First and foremost, Pakistan army would have to take a clear and strong stance by distancing itself from politics, maintaining neutrality, and avoiding involvement in political processes.  Such a step can be a significant turning point in Pakistan’s democratic journey.

Similarly, the judiciary in Pakistan should not confine itself to juristocracy and hyperactive judicial activism, which can encroach upon political sovereignty. Instead, it should operate within a balanced framework that respects the separation of powers. Legislative assemblies should introduce reforms aimed at strengthening democracy and minimizing external influences in political processes.

Political parties have a vital role to play in upholding democracy. They should strive to build political consensus on shared norms and a code of conduct. Key aspects such as free and fair elections, civil liberties, free media, equality, and peaceful transfer of government must be areas of convergence among political parties. It is crucial that all political parties accept the democratic practices and results thereof. Populist rhetoric should be avoided to gain public support, as it can undermine democratic processes.

Therefore, it is imperative that all the stakeholders identify and acknowledge the magnitude of the issues and display a collective resolve to address these issues effectively.


The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.