Recent elections in Pakistan brought new hope that the country—a longstanding, if fraught, ally of the U.S.—was making a break from its long tradition of political instability and military control. This month historian Eric A. Strahorn explores the origins of Pakistan's political troubles from independence through the war on terror.
More on South Asia from Origins: India’s Population Growth, Women in Afghanistan, and India's Dream State; a review on South Asia since Partition.
And see these essays on India: AIDS prevention, rickshaw wallahs, and Devadasi culture.
After being out of power for 13 years, 7 months, and 21 days, Nawaz Sharif was reelected prime minister of Pakistan on June 5, 2013.
This prosaic electoral event brought substantial hope for Pakistan’s future and marked several firsts.
It was the first time in Pakistan’s turbulent political history that one democratically elected government served out its full term and passed the reins of power to a democratically elected government from a different political party. For half of its history Pakistan has been ruled by the military and dictators.
It was also the first time a Pakistani prime minister won a third term. Sharif’s previous two terms, 1990-1993 and 1997-1999, ended early and abruptly due to internal dissent leading ultimately to his exile in Saudi Arabia for seven years in 2000.
Many hope Sharif’s majority support will enable him to tackle some of the country’s persistent problems, such as terrorism, corruption, power shortages, regional disputes, a sluggish economy, U.S. drone strikes, and sour relations between the civilian government and the military.
But the road ahead looks difficult.
From its postcolonial beginnings in 1947, Pakistan’s political elites have faced regional, communal, and religious obstacles to building a stable, enduring political structure. It took years to produce the first constitution and even longer to hold national elections. Debates raged over whether Pakistan should be a secular or Islamic state and over which regional and political elites should rule.
At the same time, Pakistan suffered from complexities of geography and poor relations with neighbors. It began independent life divided into the almost unworkable split of West and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). And it has struggled against its larger neighbor India over control of territory.
Today, Pakistan confronts the destabilizing effects of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the spread of Taliban forces across the region, and a changing relationship with the United States (its ally for decades).
So far, the optimism of last summer’s political transition seems premature. With increasing terrorist attacks and the imposition of Sharif’s controversial new security laws, discontent is mounting. On December 24, 2013, a Gilani Research Foundation opinion poll that showed that only 27% of Pakistanis believe the country is moving in the right direction.
Pakistan’s fresh start has yet to materialize.
An Inauspicious Beginning: Independence and Partition
Salmon Rushdie has famously described Pakistan as “a place … insufficiently imagined.”
Pakistan shook itself free from the United Kingdom in 1947 after almost 100 years of colonial control under the British Raj. The long process of gaining independence had been dominated by two nationalist organizations, the Indian National Congress led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Gandhi and the Congress argued that despite South Asia’s complicated mosaic of ethnicities, languages, and religions the entire population shared a single nationality. They were Indian.
Jinnah, in his “Two Nations Theory,” argued that while they may live side by side, the Hindus and Muslims of South Asia constituted two separate nations.
In a single polity, Jinnah worried, the Muslims of South Asia would become a permanent minority with little political influence and few if any rights. Therefore, the Muslims of South Asia needed their own homeland: Pakistan.
But what was Pakistan to be? Some proposals suggested that it be a highly autonomous region inside a larger Indian federation while others advocated a separate sovereign state.
When it came time for independence, the British, Muslim League, and Congress agreed to partition all of South Asia between Pakistan and India. Areas with substantial Muslim majorities were assigned to Pakistan.
However these Muslim majority zones were not geographically contiguous so that Pakistan had two “wings,” East and West, a thousand miles apart. Moreover, the large provinces of Punjab and Bengal were both split into two so that Muslim-majority West Punjab and East Bengal joined Pakistan while East Punjab and West Bengal went to India. The borders between India and Pakistan were hurriedly determined by the Radcliffe Commission. Jinnah denounced the boundaries of this “moth-eaten Pakistan.”
Partition was accompanied by the movement of millions of refugees who found themselves on the “wrong” side of the new borders. Fleeing chaos and sometimes grotesque violence among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, refugees arrived in their new countries destitute. Governments struggled to respond because few had anticipated the vast scale of migrations.
One of the most serious territorial disputes between India and Pakistan was the status of the province of Kashmir.
Located in the Himalayas, Kashmir shared borders with Pakistan and India and both countries laid claim to it. War erupted, and with the ceasefire in 1948 India occupied about two thirds of the province with Pakistan holding the other third. The war was costly to both countries, but it settled little.
The status of Kashmir has continued to be a flashpoint between them to this day. And Pakistan’s fear of the larger Indian military has resulted in an outsized proportion of its budget going to defense—up to 70% early on.
At the same time, the new government of Pakistan faced numerous other problems.
Jinnah preferred for Pakistan to have a secular liberal democracy, but this sentiment was not necessarily widely shared by the new nation’s citizens and leaders.
Pakistan started off at a disadvantage economically and institutionally. The republic of India inherited the assets of British India including the capital in New Delhi. India and Pakistan negotiated a division of other assets like military equipment, office furniture, and gold reserves, but much of Pakistan’s share was never delivered. The government of Pakistan occupied temporary facilities in Karachi until the construction of a new capital in Islamabad in 1960.
According to historian Ian Talbot, “the Pakistani sense of inferiority and insecurity was psychologically rooted in the country’s status as a seceding state rather than inheritor of the Raj. Membership of international organisations such as the United Nations devolved upon India, whereas Pakistan had to go cap-in-hand to apply for membership.”
Pakistan, the Early Years: Political Instability and Regional Fighting
Independence unleashed a wide spectrum of competing political parties and ideologies, not least between East and West Pakistan. In this atmosphere, political elites failed to create a stable and legitimate political structure. Less than 10 years later, Pakistan was under military rule.
Led by Jinnah, the Muslim League had been the driving force behind the demand for an independent Pakistan in the 1940s. As Jinnah’s prestige and authority were unmatched in 1947, he became the head of state, Governor-General, of Pakistan. But he died the following year leaving a power vacuum.
The Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing a constitution and serving as an interim parliament, lost its legitimacy rapidly. Its members had not been elected in 1947, and while the assembly dithered and debated, the Government of India Act of 1935 (revised in 1947) served as an interim constitution for Pakistan until 1956.
Liaquat Ali Khan, who was named prime minister in 1947, found it difficult to craft a consensus despite his considerable influence. Difficult issues included the Islamic character of the state and legal system; should the new state follow British legal precedents or sharia?
East Pakistan had a larger population while West Pakistan had the greater political influence, exacerbating disagreement over a federal system. Advocates for a strong central government argued that a powerful center was necessary to pull the country together, while advocates for stronger provinces argued that a weak center would preserve local differences.
Following from the multi-lingual nature of Pakistan was the question of the national language. On one hand, they wanted to avoid using English, which was the language of imperialism, but on the other there was no Indian language common to all parts of the country.
In East Pakistan the vast majority of the population spoke Bengali, little used in the West, where dozens of languages were spoken. Punjabi had the most speakers, but almost all lived in Punjab province.
In the end, the national government chose Urdu even though few people spoke it. Urdu was the mother tongue of many of the refugees from north India, but for most of the population, it was a literary language learned by the elite.
Pakistan’s contentious beginnings culminated in the controversial Public and Representative Office Disqualification Act (PRODA) in 1949—which created categories of political crimes—and the 1951 legal case known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in which 11 people including Major-General Akbar Khan and members of Pakistan’s Communist Party were accused of plotting a coup. The government then cracked down on trade unions and several prominent writers. A few months later, the prime minister was assassinated.
The next prime minister, Khawaja Nazimudden, a Bengali politician, tried to bring some order to the political system but remained in office for only two years. He declared martial law in 1953, but was soon dismissed from office by the Governor-General. Another politician from East Pakistan, Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, was then named prime minister, and finally succeeded in getting a constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly in 1956.
The momentum towards political stabilization, however, did not last.
The new constitution provided for a general election but it was never held due to disagreements over how electoral districts would be drawn up. The Constituent Assembly continued to serve poorly as an interim parliament for two more years until martial law was declared in 1958.
Regional tensions exacerbated the political difficulties in both wings of the country. In East Pakistan, a crisis erupted in the provincial Legislative Assembly first over the authority of the speaker and then the budget. The government of East Pakistan lost a confidence vote in the assembly and President Iskander Mirza imposed “President’s Rule.”
In West Pakistan, the situation also deteriorated. The Muslim League created its own paramilitary force while the Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, opponent of Partition, and advocate of democracy, pressed his supporters to defy the government.
The threat of civil war was all too real.
In 1958, Mirza declared martial law and appointed General Muhammad Ayub Khan to the position of Chief Martial Law Administrator and then named him prime minister. After three weeks, Ayub Khan forced Mirza out of office and assumed the presidency.
The rising young politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—whose family came to play a central political role in Pakistan—joined the government as minister of commerce.
This was not the Pakistan envisaged by Jinnah and the other founders.
Wars and Military Dictatorships
In 1959, under a new constitution, the newly self-titled Field Marshal Ayub issued the Basic Democracies Order, which again revised the political structure. Political parties were disbanded and numerous politicians were disqualified from holding office, elections were held only for the local governments, and Ayub took on the title of president.
While keeping democracy in check, Ayub sought to shift the focus to economic development seeing growth as the route to the country’s salvation. If political solutions could not be easily found, then perhaps economic success would cover over the constitutional crises.
In the process, Pakistan became a cold war ally of the United States. Seeking economic and military aid to defend against its neighbor India, Pakistan joined the Central Treaty Organization and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, two of a series of alliances designed to contain the Soviet Union. India, a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, declined.
Pakistan and the United States subsequently developed close military ties. The U.S. established an air force base near the city of Peshawar in northern West Pakistan close to the border with Afghanistan.
This base was used for U-2 spy plane missions over Soviet territory until the Soviets shot down the plane piloted by Gary Powers in 1960. Under pressure from the Soviets, Pakistan secured the planes’ removal, but the United States maintained a CIA listening post there until 1970.
In 1962, Ayub ended martial law with a new constitution that created a virtually dictatorial presidential system. Nonetheless, political parties were restored, and in 1965, a presidential election was held with Ayub and Jinnah’s sister Fatima as the candidates. Ayub won and declared prematurely that his victory was a “clear and final verdict on the Constitution.”
Kashmir and the Rise of Bhutto
In 1965, the long-running border dispute between India and Pakistan, especially over Kashmir, erupted into warfare. The fighting was relatively brief, but the army of Pakistan was overwhelmed. When Ayub acknowledged that Pakistan could not win and sought an end to the conflict it was a major blow to his prestige.
Pakistani politics once again spun into turmoil.
Bhutto, who had risen to foreign minister, broke with Ayub and created the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967. Ostensibly socialist, the PPP quickly became Bhutto’s personal vehicle in a contest for power.
Ayub was forced to resign by the army head General Muhammad Yahya Khan in 1969. Following a similar script to those who came before him, Yahya abrogated the 1962 Constitution, banned all political parties, and declared martial law.
He then called a national parliamentary election for October 1970, but he postponed it after a series of serious floods in East Pakistan. In the midst of this, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), a Bengali nationalist and later prime minister of Bangladesh, and the Awami League produced a list of demands and began calling for greater autonomy for East Pakistan, including a separate currency, tax system and militia.
The election was rescheduled for December, but in November a massive cyclone hit East Bengal and killed more than a million people. Relief efforts by the central government were widely seen in East Pakistan as inadequate and indicative of the indifference of western leaders toward the east.
When the first general election in Pakistan’s history finally took place, the Awami League won 167 of 169 of East Pakistan’s seats while Bhutto’s PPP won 81 seats. And reflecting the chasm separating the eastern and western parts of Pakistan, neither party won any seats in the other wing of the country.
As the leader of the largest party, Mujib expected to be asked to form a government, but Bhutto, who was influential among the generals in Yahya’s inner circle, had a different idea. When Yahya declared Mujib prime minister, the PPP and many leading generals objected.
Splitting East and West: the Birth of Bangladesh
In the political jockeying that followed the elections, the army began reinforcing its garrisons in East Pakistan. It transferred Bengali troops to the west and moved soldiers from the west to the east.
In a conciliatory gesture, Yahya ordered the National Assembly to hold its first meeting in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. He then delayed the opening to give the politicians more time to sort out a government. Bengali politicians were offended by the delay and some began to call for an independent Bangladesh. Massive protests, strikes, and riots erupted throughout the province.
The call for an independent Bangladesh was the culmination of years of political discontent and cultural marginalization in East Pakistan. Their Bengali language had not been adopted as a national language of Pakistan. Bengalis were underrepresented in army officer ranks as well as the civil service. And the national capital had been placed in West Pakistan.
As violence grew, the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971. It attacked the remaining Bengali army units and rounded up and killed civilians including professionals like doctors, lawyers, and writers. Hindus were targeted as enemies of Pakistan. It was only in 2013 that several perpetrators of this mass slaughter were convicted in a Bangladeshi court.
After waves of refugees from Bangladesh fled to India, the government of Indira Gandhi announced that it couldn’t effectively cope with the millions crossing the border. Gandhi not only wanted to stop the flow of refugees but saw the opportunity to strike a blow against rival Pakistan. She ordered the intervention of the Indian army and after a short war with fighting in both the east and the west, Pakistan was forced to surrender and accept the independence of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971.
Déjà vu all over again: The Bhutto and Zia Years
Losing the civil war was devastating to the remainder of Pakistan. Yahya was forced to resign and Bhutto took office as the country’s first civilian president in thirteen years.
At the same time, the example of secession of one part of Pakistan set off other demands for local power in the western parts of Pakistan, especially in the province of Balochistan in the southwest of the country. Bhutto rejected the unrest as the work of “secessionists” and sent in the army to suppress it.
In 1973, Bhutto approved another new constitution that in theory reduced the power of the president in favor of the National Assembly and the prime minister. According to historian Safdar Mahmood, it “heralded a new era of democracy and political stability in Pakistan,” but in practice things fell short.
Protests and riots grew as the opposition denounced the 1977 election as rigged. Bhutto had opposition politicians arrested and turned to the head of the army, General Zia-ul-haq, to impose martial law.
Instead, Zia staged a coup and had Bhutto executed in 1979.
On assuming the presidency, Zia instituted an Islamization of the mostly secular political system and revised the constitution to increase the power of the president. Zia incorrectly hoped that the Islamization of Pakistan would lead to a greater national unity.
Opposition to Zia grew during the early 1980s and in a bid to calm the situation he lifted martial law in 1985 and called an election but banned political parties from participating. The election failed to quell the unrest.
Zia then allowed the daughter of Bhutto, Benazir, to return from exile. The younger Bhutto was able to unify the opposition and as the protests increased, Zia died in an airplane crash in 1988.
In the midst of this decade of political turbulence, U.S.-Pakistani relations took on a new urgency.
Initially, the United States had viewed Zia as an illegitimate and distasteful dictator. But with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States offered Zia billions of dollars in economic and military aid to secure his cooperation.
With the death of Zia, democracy in Pakistan received new life.
The two major parties were the PPP led by Bhutto and the Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. The constitution as revised by Zia remained in force, giving the president extensive power. Both Bhutto and Sharif were elected twice and then dismissed twice by presidents allied with the military.
In 1999, Sharif’s second term ended early by a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, like earlier coup leaders, promised to restore order and step aside for early elections. And like the others, he failed to follow through.
Opposition to Musharraf was initially muted but grew over time. One major problem he faced was neighboring Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had withdrawn from the country in 1989, but Afghanistan was soon plunged into civil war.
The United States had lost interest in Afghanistan, but Pakistan faced a flood of refugees across the porous border. It organized refugee camps and in these camps the Taliban was born. Assisted by elements within Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence, the Taliban evolved into a major political movement best known for its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Following 9/11, American interest in Afghanistan was renewed. This posed a problem for Musharraf because a substantial segment of Pakistani society was sympathetic towards the Taliban. Under intense American pressure, Musharraf decided to cooperate with the U.S. invasion of his neighbor.
As Musharraf’s popularity waned, the opposition led by Bhutto and Sharif in exile pushed him to resign. Musharraf agreed to step down as the head of the army and to call an election which he would contest as a civilian. Bhutto was allowed to return once again from exile but as she campaigned for office she was assassinated in 2007.
The following year, Musharraf resigned and Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari won the presidential election and the PPP won the following parliamentary election. Zardari, nicknamed “Mr. Ten Percent” because he was widely believed to take a commission on most government contracts, had served as a member of Bhutto’s second government.
His popularity waned rapidly as the country faced economic difficulties and the effects of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Zardari cooperated with the United States and tried to improve relations with India. Yet, like Musharraf, he also desperately tried to avoid alienating Taliban sympathizers.
In 2009, he was obligated to transfer control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani. With continued allegations of corruption, Zardari came under increased pressure to resign.
While the PPP government managed to finish its five-year term, the party became extremely unpopular. Sharif’s Muslim League won the 2013 election with a substantial majority.
Sharif: Third Time’s a Charm or More of the Same?
Many believed that Sharif, after thirteen years in the wilderness, would approach his third term in office in a less confrontational and more effective fashion.
While Sharif’s third government may be somewhat less provocative in style, substantively little has changed. In most areas other than the economy, Sharif has been unable to fulfill his promises.
He has continued his policies of economic reform, including the privatization of government run enterprises. Companies like Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Steel are in the process of being privatized. Foreign direct investment has gone up while the rate of GDP growth is higher than it was last year.
However, Sharif has so far been unable to improve Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, India, or the United States.
In early 2014, Pakistan and Afghanistan traded accusations over continuing cross-border terrorism.
More importantly, Sharif has not been able to persuade the United States to stop sending drones to Pakistan. Drone strikes have led to widespread anti-American sentiment.
Sharif’s government has also had difficulty improving domestic security. Terrorist attacks have increased and efforts to negotiate with the Tehrik-e-Taliban (the Taliban in Pakistan) have been sporadic. In response, the government has implemented stringent new security laws including the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance [PPO] that have attracted protests from opposition parties and human rights organizations.
The implementation of the PPO suggests that the long awaited political stability remains elusive. Despite the positive nature of the transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another, the structural problems in the Pakistani political system persist, as does the unusually difficult geopolitical neighborhood in which Pakistan resides.
Akbar, M.J. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. Harper Perennial, 2012.
Jones, Owen Bennett. Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. Third Edition. Yale University Press, 2009.
Lieven, Anatol. Pakistan: A Hard Country. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.
Mahmood, Safdar. Pakistan: Political Roots and Development 1947-1999. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Nawaz, Shuja. Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Talbot, Ian. Pakistan: A Modern History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Ziring, Lawrence. Pakistan in the Twentieth Century: A Political History. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997.