Pakistan's Rocky Path to Democracy: A History of Military Interventions and Political Instability

Pakistan's Rocky Path to Democracy: A History of Military Interventions and Political Instability

March 12, 2023

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto once famously said, ‘Democracy is the best revenge’. This powerful statement reflects her determination to fight against authoritarianism in the country, following the unjust ousting and execution of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, by the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. Bhutto’s resolve to seek justice and bring about change through democratic means is an inspiration to many in Pakistan’s political landscape.

Benazir Bhutto’s education at prestigious universities such as Harvard and Oxford provided her with a firsthand understanding of the value of democracy as an antithesis to the military rule prevalent in her homeland. She believed that the authoritarian rule of General Zia was the primary reason for her family’s tragic circumstances and considered the reintroduction of democracy as the most effective means of retaliation. However, with the passage of four decades, it has become increasingly challenging to determine who exactly democracy in Pakistan is seeking revenge against.

The First Democracy in Athens

The concept of democracy can be traced back to ancient Greece, specifically to the city-state of Athens. The Athenian democracy was established in the 5th century BCE and is considered the first known democracy in the world. The word “democracy” comes from the Greek words “demos,” meaning “the people,” and “kratos,” meaning “power” or “rule.” In Athens, democracy meant that every male citizen had the right to vote on all major issues, regardless of their wealth or social status. This system allowed for a degree of political participation and representation that was unprecedented in its time.

However, early Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle expressed skepticism about democracy. Socrates believed that voting was a skill that could not be entrusted to just anyone, while Plato believed that democracy followed citizens’ impulses rather than a common good. Aristotle favored an aristocracy based on merit rather than blood. These philosophers believed that a sufficiently informed voter was essential for a successful democracy.

Pakistan Movement and Western Democracy

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817 - 1898) is widely attributed with the two-nation theory which became the basis of the movement struggling to get a separate country for Indian Muslims. He believed that “if the democratic principle was introduced in India, the Muslims would find themselves completely at the mercy of the Hindu majority”.

Taking inspiration from Khan’s views, the Indian poet and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877 - 1938) criticised democracy in its Western form, calling it a quantitative system which “counts people rather than weighing them”. He believed that Western democracy presented the same old systems of monarchy and aristocracy camouflaged in a new cloak, and that it favoured the rich and the majority and failed to protect the minorities.

Iqbal went on to become the first person to publicly voice a demand for a separate country for Muslims in India. His demand materialised as the new country called Pakistan in August 1947, when the British partitioned India and finally left the subcontinent.

Therefore, in addition to an uninformed voter, Syed Ahmad Khan and Iqbal argued that Western democracy, when introduced as-is in India, would suppress the minority views.

Three months after the Partition, on 11 November 1947 in House of Commons, Winston Churchill, who was then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, himself remarked that “[n]o one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

The Intelligence Distribution in Society

The limitations of democracy have long been known and acknowledged, and democracy has evolved to overcome these limitations. Reserved seats and separate electorates were introduced to ensure that minority views got representation. Unlike in Athens, in most democracies today, the public no longer directly chooses the head of state.

However, the biggest factor in the success or failure of a democratic system remains the same: the common people. Logic demands that people making a decision about a certain subject must be sufficiently equipped with knowledge of that particular subject to make an informed decision. It is, therefore, necessary for there to be a unit for measuring this “sufficient knowledge,” or political awareness, which qualifies a person to vote.

Today, in most countries, this unit of measurement is age, with everyone over a certain age being allowed to have a say. This is problematic because age does not directly translate to political awareness. Just because someone is over the age of 18 does not mean they are educated enough about the political landscape to make an informed decision.

Another unit could be education, where people with only a specific level of minimum education should be allowed to vote. This is again problematic because, in most cases, a degree does not equal education. Similarly, in many parts of the world, older generations or certain members of society, such as women, did or do not go to school due to multiple factors. This does not mean that they are unaware of political matters. Therefore, making a certain level of education necessary for casting a ballot would put these groups at a disadvantage.

One other unit could be the IQ, where people above a certain threshold, when compared to the national average, would be eligible for voting. This, however, has similar disadvantages.

What makes a person eligible for having a say in a certain matter depends on the nature of the matter and the people to whom this person belongs. Political awareness of people is subjective and fluid, and therefore almost impossible to measure objectively. This makes it difficult to make a fair decision about who should and should not be allowed to vote. Age seems like the safest, least controversial bet, and that is what most democracies today are following.

However, it is worth noting that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the solution, and a democratic system should be tailored according to the nature of the people where this system is being implemented.

The German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once expressed his belief that a large portion of people lack intelligence. He also noted that this group is inconsistent in their decision-making, which minimizes the harm they can cause to society with their poor choices.

Einstein’s statement may appear brusque to more diplomatic individuals, but the truth in his words is undeniable. While determining intelligence can be subjective, it is evident that many people are misinformed or lack knowledge about reality, either due to external factors or their own unwillingness to learn. This may be due to projection bias, selective communication, a lack of curiosity, or other reasons.

Given these factors, it is unreasonable to expect the majority of people to make well-informed decisions. This issue is particularly significant in societies like Pakistan, where literacy rates are low, conspiracy theories about imagined threats abound, and people are easily swayed by religious and cultural beliefs. In such societies, fact-checking and research are often neglected, and gullibility is commonplace.

Modern Democracies

Top 5 successful democracies. When did they adopt democracy? What is their literacy rate?

The Democracy Index, compiled by the UK-based company Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), ranks the state of democracy in 167 countries based on some fifty indicators. Norway ranked highest in 2019, followed by Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Finland, while Pakistan stood at the 108th position.

Country Type of Democracy Year of Adoption Literacy Rate
Norway Parliamentary System 1814 100%
Iceland Unitary Parliamentary Representative 1944 99%
Sweden Constitutional Monarchy 1809 99%
New Zealand Unitary Parliamentary Representative 1852 99%
Finland Parliamentary Representative 1919 100%
United Kingdom Unitary Parliamentary Democracy Monarchy Evolved 99%  
United States Federal Presidential Constitutional 1788 79%

Democracy in Pakistan

Pakistan has always had an uneasy relationship with democracy. It became independent of the United Kingdom in 1947, but remained a British Dominion until 1956 when the first Constitution was adopted.

During this period, Pakistan followed the Government of India Act 1935 and Indian Independence Act 1947, under which Pakistan’s head of state was the Monarch of the United Kingdom, represented by a Governor-General in Pakistan. The Governor-General was appointed for an indefinite time, and had unchecked powers.

Before independence, the All-India Muslim League under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, known as Quaid-i-Azam (the Great Leader), was at the forefront of Pakistan Movement. Jinnah became first Governor-General of Pakistan, and he appointed Liaquat Ali Khan as his Prime Minister.

Liaquat Ali Khan and Kashmir: 1947-1951

The two newly formed Dominions, India and Pakistan immediately went to war over the princely state of Kashmir. Policy differences between Jinnah and Khan led to friction between the two as early as 1948 but the Governor-General, who favoured a military confrontation in Kashmir, died in September that year. By then Pakistan, with the support of local rebels, had already liberated a third of Kashmir.

Jinnah’s successor, Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin, who was an aristocrat like Liaquat Ali Khan and had been appointed with the Prime Minister’s complete support, adopted a policy of non-interference and deferred policy matters to the Prime Minister. This provided space for Khan to further his policy of hard diplomacy and less military stance on Kashmir and other matters of contentions with India. Khan approached the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had referred the matter of Kashmir to the United Nations. Pakistan accepted UN mediation and a cease-fire was reached in 1949. Khan and Nehru also signed a pact addressing other disagreements in 1950.

The Armed Forces of Pakistan, who were sympathetic to Pakistan’s founding father Jinnah’s views on Kashmir, were not happy with Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Many top military officials believed that Pakistan should not have accepted UN mediation, and that it could have liberated rest of the Kashmir too. Deeming Khan’s government as weak and self-serving, a group of over two dozen army officials and left-wing politicians attempted a coup d’état against Khan’s government in 1951, but their attempt was foiled.

The perceived inability of Khan’s government to safeguard the values of founding fathers of the newly formed Pakistan, combined with the military nature of the conflict and the Armed Forces’ stake in it, invited a faction within the military to try and intervene. This set a precedent for all the subsequent military interventions whenever it found the democratic government lacking.

The First Constitution of Pakistan: 1951-1958

The first Constitution of Pakistan was adopted in 1956, which established Pakistan as an Islamic Republic. The Constitution provided for a parliamentary form of government, with the Prime Minister as the head of the government and the President as the head of the state. The Constitution also guaranteed fundamental rights to the citizens, including freedom of speech, religion, and equality before the law.

However, the implementation of the Constitution was short-lived, as the democratic government was overthrown by the military in 1958. General Ayub Khan took over as the President of Pakistan, suspended the Constitution, and imposed martial law. This marked the beginning of a long period of military rule in Pakistan.

Military Rule and the Second Constitution: 1958-1970

During the military rule, several amendments were made to the Constitution to legitimize the military regime. In 1962, a new Constitution was introduced, which provided for a presidential form of government and centralized power in the hands of the President. The Constitution also introduced the concept of Basic Democracies, which were local-level bodies that were supposed to act as a bridge between the government and the people.

However, the Basic Democracies failed to create a meaningful participatory democracy, and the military government continued to suppress political opposition and restrict civil liberties.

First Democratic Elections and the Third Constitution: 1970-1977

In 1970, the first democratic elections were held, but the military regime refused to hand over power to the elected representatives, which led to a civil war and the secession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

After the civil war, General Yahya Khan stepped down and handed over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who became the first civilian President of Pakistan. Bhutto introduced a new Constitution in 1973, which provided for a parliamentary form of government and restored the fundamental rights of citizens. However, Bhutto’s government was overthrown by another military coup in 1977.

The Military Rule under Zia and the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism: 1977-1988

The military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 and introduced several amendments to the Constitution to further centralize power in the hands of the President. Zia-ul-Haq also introduced strict Islamic laws, which further restricted civil liberties and marginalized religious minorities.

A Democratic Farce: 1988-1999

In 1988, democratic elections were held, and Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, became the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, her government was dismissed twice by the President on charges of corruption and incompetence. The democratic process in Pakistan has been marred by frequent military interventions, political instability, and weak institutions.

Despite the efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, the 1990s saw a continuation of the cycle of military interventions and unstable civilian governments. Benazir Bhutto was again dismissed in 1990, and Nawaz Sharif became the Prime Minister for the first time. However, his government was also dismissed twice by the President, once in 1993 and then again in 1999, on charges of corruption and mismanagement.

The Military Coup of Musharraf: 1999-2008

In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf staged a military coup and overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf suspended the Constitution and assumed the role of Chief Executive. He promised to hold elections and restore democracy, but his regime was marked by repression of political opponents and restrictions on freedom of the press.

In 2002, Musharraf held elections and formed a new political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), which won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. However, the elections were widely criticized for being rigged in favor of the ruling party. The opposition parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto, boycotted the elections.

In 2007, Musharraf dismissed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, sparking a nationwide protest movement led by lawyers and civil society activists. Bhutto returned to Pakistan from self-exile and joined the protest movement, demanding an end to military rule and the restoration of democracy. In December 2007, she was assassinated at a political rally in Rawalpindi.

The Return of Democracy: 2008-2018

Despite the turmoil, democratic elections were held in 2008, and the PPP won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, became the President of Pakistan, and Yousaf Raza Gilani was appointed as the Prime Minister. However, the PPP government was plagued by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and it was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2012.

The 2013 general elections were marked by allegations of rigging, and the opposition parties, including the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan, staged protests and sit-ins in Islamabad. Khan demanded a recount of votes and an independent investigation into the allegations of rigging. However, the government refused to accede to his demands, and the protests were eventually dispersed.

In 2018, general elections were held, and Imran Khan’s PTI won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The elections were again marred by allegations of rigging, but the opposition parties accepted the results and the transfer of power was peaceful. Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, promising to root out corruption and strengthen democratic institutions.


In conclusion, Pakistan’s struggle for democracy has been long and challenging due to various factors. One of the key factors hindering the growth of democracy in Pakistan is its low literacy rate, which limits the political awareness and civic participation of the masses. Additionally, the authoritarian nature of military regimes and the controlled press have restricted the space for dissenting voices, further undermining democratic principles.

Moreover, allegations of rigging and electoral malpractices have become a recurrent feature in Pakistan’s democratic process, weakening the public’s faith in democratic institutions. This has led to frequent protests and calls for electoral reforms, with the recent 2018 general elections being one of the most fiercely contested and controversial ones.

However, despite these challenges, Pakistan has also witnessed moments of hope, such as the successful transfer of power from one elected government to another in 2013, marking the first time in the country’s history where a democratically elected government completed its full term.

The path to democracy in Pakistan is still long and arduous, but it is imperative for the country’s stability and progress. For this, it is crucial to ensure a level playing field for all political parties, strengthen democratic institutions, and promote political education and awareness among the masses. Only then can Pakistan’s democratic aspirations be fulfilled, and the country move towards a stable, prosperous, and democratic future.