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State of Democracy in Pakistan

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The circumstances surrounding the life and death of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto will directly affect the politics of Pakistan and, by extension, the efforts of everyone who will attempt to secure the goals of democracy worldwide. The issue is of prime significance, and it is this interest that has led me to conduct the following research.{{more}}

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan won its independence through a democratic and constitutional struggle. In 1956, it finally made that transition to a parliamentary democracy. The first Prime Minister of Pakistan was Liaquat Ali Khan, who was appointed to the position by the first Governor-General, Muhammmad Ali Jinnah. Undesirably, for more than half of its 60 years of independence, it has indeed been a struggle for this nuclear-armed country to maintain this form of government.

Shortly after their independence, the office of the Prime Minister was discontinued. It became a common element for Prime Ministers to be removed by the Head of State under the guise of democracy. In 1958, under the first officially elected President Iskander Mirza, a new Constitution was declared. Consequently, the office of Prime Minister essentially disappeared, until 1973 when the original constitution was re-introduced. Hence, it is noteworthy, however, that from infancy, Pakistan has resisted political instability and military dictatorship.

Its current President and Head of State, General Pervez Musharraf, has attempted to reconstruct Pakistani politics and society. Coming into power in 1999 by effecting a virtual military coup d’état, he has suspended the Constitution of Pakistan twice. He took power on October 12, 1999, ousting Nawaz Sharif. Later in 2001, Musharraf appointed himself to the office of President of Pakistan.

Interestingly, on November 3, 2007, only days before a bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan was to decide on a petition challenging the constitutional validity of his re-election as president, in the controversial October 2007 elections, he, as Chief of Army Staff, declared a state of emergency, justified by rampant extremism and terrorism. He further suspended the Constitution; jailed several justices and lawyers of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry; ordered the arrest of political dissidents and human rights activists, and shut down all private television channels. On November 24, the Pakistan Election Commission confirmed his re-election as President.

It is apparently clear that if Musharraf is to succeed in restoring any form of democracy in Pakistan, it must begin with an acknowledgement of the limitations of the armed forces as an agent of change to say the least and a further acknowledgement that democracy is a carefully nurtured process rather than a sacrosanct concept. On the other hand, it begs the question as to whether democracy is achievable, and if this is answered in the affirmative, is Islam compatible with democracy?

Bhutto’s mission began in 1986 when she was elected co-chairwoman of the PPP in a movement for new elections. Her efforts paid off when free elections were held in 1988 as she became the first and youngest female leader of a Muslim state. Undoubtedly, this was the advent of democracy in Pakistan. While in office, health, housing and food availability were given priority. As tradition would dictate, Ms. Bhutto was dismissed from office by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. In 1993 she was re-elected as Prime Minister, until being dismissed again on allegations of corruption in 1996.

Her passion for democracy to be restored in Pakistan compelled her to face radical extremist Islamists and terrorists and government hostility to advocate for democracy’s return. Bhutto represented the face of support for Washington’s war on terrorism. She made it known that if she won the office of Prime Minister, that she would permit the U.S. forces to hit Al Qaeda targets if necessary. This stance was evidence of her courageous spirit that desired democracy, freedom and peace.

The way forward to Democracy

In political theory, democracy describes a small number of related forms of government and also a political philosophy. A common feature of democracy as currently understood and practiced is competitive elections, usually seen to require freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and rule of law. It is in this direction that Pakistan has to move in order to restore democracy.

Amidst the climate of civil unrest, 165 million Pakistanis are facing the liberty of exercising their power through voting in what the world is hoping would be a free and fair election come mid-February, according to Musharraf. Should the Pakistanis succeed in that colossal effort, it would be the most fundamental step forward towards democracy.

The destruction of institutional checks and balances and the alleged prevailing corruption in the political leadership must not continue if democracy is to be seen as a personal and national Pakistani goal. As a means of maintaining this democracy, a continued war on terror must be at the forefront of every effort. This is imperative, as horrific results will await the world at large the longer the process of democracy takes to be established, especially in a nuclear-armed nation.

It is apparent that the most suitable progress towards democracy in Pakistan is a step-by-step improvement over the current state of affairs. The general hope is that the civil unrest subsides through an understanding of the underlying causes of the sense of injustice and resentment of democracy.

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