Is Democracy In Pakistan Turning Into Mobocracy? – Analysis

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Pakistan attained its independence in 1947, inheriting a parliamentary democratic system from the British colonial regime. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the country, had a vision of a state that was democratic and inclusive, where the rights of citizens would be safeguarded. Nevertheless, political unrest, power struggles, and regional tensions soon tarnished the democratic system of the country.

Pakistan’s history is marked by several instances of military coups that have led to the erosion or complete suspension of democratic institutions. Notable instances of military coups in Pakistan’s history include the declaration of martial law by General Ayub Khan in 1958, the tenure of General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988, and the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. The interventions mentioned above not only resulted in the disturbance of democratic processes but also had long-lasting effects on political institutions. Pakistan’s democratic system has encountered several obstacles, such as institutional instability, malfeasance, and political unrest, highlighting the critical influence that the military has had on political landscape of the country.

The democratic system of Pakistan has been experiencing and encountering numerous challenges, such as corruption, inadequate governance, electoral anomalies, and insufficient accountability. The current political landscape of the nation is marked by a concentration of power among a select few political families, hindering the progress of a more inclusive and cooperative democratic set-up of the country. In addition, challenges of low level of literacy, financial adversity, and sectarian rifts have posed hindrances to the progression of democratic ideals.

The advent of General Ayub Khan’s successful military takeover in Pakistan in 1958 marked a significant setback to democracy. He rationalised his actions by citing the prevailing political instability and rampant corruption during that particular period. In 1969, a coup was staged by General Yahya Khan, followed by another one in 1977 by General Zia-ul-Haq. In 1999, a military coup took place wherein General Pervez Musharraf seized power from the democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Several factors have contributed to the occurrence of military coups in Pakistan. The noteworthy factors include political instability, inadequate governance, corruption, ethnic and sectarian tensions, and economic crises. Military interventions are often viewed as a response to perceived shortcomings of civilian administrations, with the military positioning itself as a saviour capable of restoring law and order.

The military coups have resulted in significant and extensive consequences. The roles of democratic institutions of government, such as the courts, media, and civil society, have been significantly restricted and curtailed. In the interest of national security, the government has curtailed civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. Furthermore, the suppression of political opposition has frequently occurred, and the opportunity for substantial political engagement has been restricted during periods of military governance, resulting in widespread disenchantment among the populace.

 The disruption of democratic processes has resulted in the weakening of civilian institutions, which in turn has perpetuated a cycle of inadequate leadership and political instability. The populace is experiencing a growing sense of disenchantment towards politics, largely due to a waning trust in the efficacy of the democratic process. Further, the military’s involvement in politics has created multilateral challenges for the country, hindering the growth of democratic norms and the transparency of state institutions.

However, despite facing numerous challenges, Pakistan has made remarkable strides in fortifying the democratic institutions that are currently established. The year 2008 marked a significant turning point in the history of the country, as the restoration of democratic governance was achieved through the concerted efforts of political parties, civil society groups, and the judiciary. Each of these stakeholders had played a pivotal role in the successful reestablishment of democratic control over the government. The 18th constitutional amendment, implemented in 2010, marked a significant milestone in the enhancement of federalism and the delegation of power by decentralising authority and providing greater autonomy to the provinces. The objective of the amendment was to grant greater autonomy to the provinces in managing their respective affairs.

Pakistan: A Mobocracy State?

Realizing the ongoing a political crisis in view of arrest and release of former PM Khan, it seems that the country has turned into a mobocracy state.  The Pakistani government’s legislative, executive, judicial, and military branches are currently in a state of conflict, resulting in an unstable and precarious political and socio-economic climate. Extremist factions and political organisations are utilising violent and coercive tactics in order to achieve their objectives, thereby jeopardising the integrity of the country’s democratic system. The government’s failure to uphold law and order has given these organisations free reign to commit their crimes. The enduring influence of the military over the civilian government is evident, with its interference in Pakistan’s political affairs. Numerous scholars have posited that a significant number of politicians and military leaders wield unwarranted sway over the judiciary, thereby undermining the democratic system in Pakistan.

From the assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 to the more recent tragic lynching of Mashal Khan for blasphemy in 2017, the occurrence of mob violence has been a persistent and recurring feature within the political landscape of Pakistan. The presence of mob rule is a clear and present danger to the unity, integrity, and sovereignty of the country, as well as to the sanctity of the rule of law and the foundational tenets of democracy. 

On the 9th of May, paramilitary personnel, outfitted with riot gear, entered a courthouse in Islamabad with the purpose of apprehending Khan through forceful means. The anti-corruption agency of Pakistan issued charges against him. The legal issue at hand concerns the allegations made in the Al Qadir Trust Case, in which both Khan and his wife were implicated. Additionally, PM Khan has been embroiled in various legal cases, including the Toshakhana Controversy case as well. In view of this, the arrest of Khan, has caused significant political unrest in the country. The supporters of the PTI and former Prime Minister Khan promptly deduced that the military, which has traditionally wielded considerable influence in Pakistani politics, was accountable for his arrest. Nationwide protests ensued as a group of individuals who support Khan gathered outside the Pakistani army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi. The aforementioned group entered the premises through the main entrance by force and proceeded to cause damage to the buildings and property belonging to the military. In Lahore, the hometown of Khan, demonstrators unlawfully entered the residence of a high-ranking military official, causing damage to the property and setting the same on a fire. Numerous incidents of violence throughout the nation resulted in multiple casualties. Following this, the military was called upon to offer aid to the police forces in Islamabad, as well as in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Numerous commentators, scholars, and intellectuals are currently pondering whether Pakistan’s democracy is succumbing to mob rule, given the recent surge in violent incidents, fires, arsons, and assaults on the GHQ and the residence of the Corps commander. The severity of the situation has escalated to the point where assaults on the GHQ and the residence of the Corps commander have been initiated. The aforementioned incidents serve as evidence of the increasing political polarisation and ineffective leadership that have played a negative role in Pakistan’s current predicament. In Pakistan, the concept of democracy, designed to empower the populace and promote harmony, seems to have been hijacked by individuals with the intention of sowing chaos and conflict.

Ambulances, police cars, and schools have been set on fire by the PTI protesters. Then the police officials were responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons against these protesters. Hundreds of members of Khan’s PTI were arrested for criminal intimidation, rioting, and assaulting government officials after the violent clashes. A protester was fatally shot by law enforcement officials in Quetta. Human Rights Watch’s associate Asia Director Patricia Gossman said, “The Pakistani government should uphold the right to peaceful protest while responding to violence with the minimum force necessary.”

In an effort to safeguard public safety and curb the dissemination of misinformation, the government has taken the decision to sever access to the internet, web, and social media. The broad measures being implemented have the unintended consequence of impeding the public’s ability to obtain crucial medical care and life-saving information, as well as hindering journalists from reporting on instances of governmental misconduct. According to Human Rights Watch, the curtailment of individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information is prohibited by international law. Against such a background, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, on May 11, issued an order for the immediate release of Khan to a guesthouse under court supervision. The court cited the illegality of his arrest on courthouse premises.

It can be argued that the current crisis in Pakistan, characterised by incidents of protests and violence, can be attributed to the state of civil-military relations in the country. Prior to his arrest, Khan and his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), were embroiled in a contentious political dispute with the military establishment and the coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Ever since his removal from office via a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022, Khan has been vocally expressing his discontent towards the military and coalition government. According to him, there was a collaborative effort between his political opponents and the United States government to oust him from his position.

After Khan’s removal through a no-confidence vote, the subsequent administration displayed a level of tolerance towards the former premier’s hostile attacks on military officials, judicial authorities, and political opponents, as well as his promotion of conspiracy theories that blamed U.S.-supported schemes for his removal. In contrast to his predecessors, who encountered opposition from the military, Khan’s political career did not result in immediate detention, indictment on charges of corruption, or disqualification from future electoral participation through judicial intervention. It seems that both the security establishment and the civilian government have come to the realisation that Khan’s populist sway will persist unless he and his followers are brought to justice.

Although, the country’s past has been marked by military coups and political turmoil, indications suggest that democracy could potentially thrive in the country. The peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another during the 2018 general elections is a significant milestone in Pakistan’s democratic journey. There are concerns that the military’s involvement in politics may lead to the suppression of dissenting opinions. It is imperative to acknowledge that there exist circumstances where the media is subjected to censorship or intimidation, and accounts of human rights violations continue to endure. The unwavering commitment of civil society organisations and activists to uphold democratic values and hold those in power accountable is truly remarkable, especially in light of the obstacles they encounter. It is noteworthy that the young generation is exhibiting a growing inclination towards political engagement, with social media emerging as a crucial instrument in mobilising them. In summary, it can be asserted that while Pakistan’s democracy has areas for improvement, there are promising signs of progress that warrant recognition and endorsement to foster the nation’s future development.

*About the authors:

  • Dr. Bawa Singh (Associate Professor), Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab (India). [email protected]
  • Dr. Sandeep Singh teaching at the Dr. Ambedkar Centre of Excellence, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. [email protected]

Dr. Bawa Singh

Dr. Bawa Singh is an Associate Professor, Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India

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