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Pakistan - Government

Pakistan is a parliamentary federal republic in South Asia, with a population of over 170 million people. The government is based on the much-amended constitution of 1973, which was suspended twice (in 1977 and 1999) and reinstated twice (in 1985 and 2002). According to the constitution, Pakistan is a federal parliamentary system with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. The legislature, or parliament, is the Majlis-i-Shoora (Council of Advisers), consisting of the Lower House, which is often called the National Assembly, and the Upper House, or Senate. National Assembly members are directly elected for five-year terms. Senate members are elected by provincial assemblies, with equal representation from each of the four provinces as well as representatives from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Islamabad Capital Territory. Both the Senate and National Assembly may initiate and pass legislation, but only the National Assembly can approve federal budgets and finance bills. However, parliament often has had little real political power. For example, in 2003 the only bill passed by the National Assembly was the national budget.

Politics in Pakistan often have not operated according to the constitution. The military and Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) frequently have been the pre-eminent actors in the country's power structure, and in 1999 General Pervez Musharraf assumed power in a military coup. Moreover, there has been some concern that Pakistan could become a "failed state" because of the apparent inability of any single entity to control the country, the weakened productivity of a population beset by years of economic difficulties, and continuing problems of communal conflict and terrorism. Ethnic and provincial tensions often are manifested in rivalries between political parties, and several governments have been ended by assassination or military coup rather than by formal, electoral change.

The concept of the Islamic state has dominated religion-political thinking in Pakistan ever since its creation in 1947. Religion has played an important role in politics, and religious differences have been very salient in Pakistani government and civil tensions of whether and how to synthesize Islamic principles into an essentially secular and Western form of government. Religious differences among politically influential actors have become increasingly prominent since the early 1980s, when politics became more religiously oriented under the rule of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-88). As religious groups' access to government resources increased, groups competed for political resources and the capacity to promote their approach to Islam, and sectarian divisions often became violent.

Pakistan has had a troubled constitutional history since its very inception as a state. Not long after partition from India in 1947, Pakistan was plunged into a Constitutional crisis in 1954 when the Governor General dissolved the Constituent Assembly when he did not agree to the proposed constitution. This first major subversion of the constitutional process was challenged before the Federal Court, which validated the dissolution of the assembly in the Moulvi Tamizuddin case (1955). Although a new Constituent Assembly adopted the country's first constitution in 1956, it lasted only two years until the first President of Pakistan, Major-General Iskander Mirza, abrogated the Constitution, dissolved the national and provincial legislatures and imposed Martial Law, appointing General Ayub Khan as the Chief Martial Law Administrator.

In the Dosso case (1958), the Supreme Court of Pakistan validated once again the extra-constitutional actions of the executive and enunciated the doctrine of 'revolutionary legality.' After passing a new Constitution in 1962 that empowered an autocratic executive, General Ayub Khan ruled until 1969. He was forced to hand over the reins of power to General Yahya Khan after widespread student protests led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his newly-founded Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP). General Yahya Khan presided over a disastrous military campaign in East Pakistan, Pakistan's loss to India in the war of 1971, and ultimately the secession of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh.

In 1973 Pakistan adopted its current constitution after thorough deliberation and consensus of all the political parties. The Constitution of Pakistan created a parliamentary form of government following the British model whereby the elected Prime Minister is the locus of executive power and the President is a figurehead. The other key foundational principle of the 1973 Constitution is that of federalism. Pakistan's four provinces each have their own provincial legislatures. Whereas the seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the national parliament, are distributed between provinces on a demographic basis, each province is entitled to equal representation in the upper house, the Senate. Constitutional amendments require the approval of two-thirds majorities in both the National Assembly and the Senate.

In 1977, in the aftermath of protests from an alliance of opposition political parties over claims of rigging of the elections, General Zia-ul-Haq deposed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Prime Minister and imposed Martial Law in the country, placing the Constitution in abeyance and replacing it in the interim with a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). In the Nusrat Bhutto case (1977) the Supreme Court validated the coup on the basis of the Common Law "doctrine of state necessity." Zia then made several changes to the Constitution to strengthen the power of the president, including introducing Article 58(2)(b) to the Constitution via the notorious Eighth Constitutional Amendment. Article 58(2)(b) granted the President discretionary powers to dismiss the Parliament and call for fresh elections.

In the 1988 elections Benazir Bhutto led the PPP to victory and became the first Prime Minister after the Zia era, ushering in a decade of alternation between the elected governments of Bhutto's PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Mian Nawaz Sharif. The military interfered several times in politics and backed presidential use of Article 58(2) (b) to dissolve the government, usually justifying its actions based on corruption charges against the political leaders.

In August 2008, General Musharraf resigned as President amidst a threat of impeachment by the legislators. With the subsequent election of Asif Ali Zardari, chairman of the PPP, as President of Pakistan the ruling coalition's interest in renegotiating the shift back to a more parliamentary structure of governance appeared to have dwindled.

On 19 April 2010 president Asif Ali Zardari signed into law the 18th Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution. The Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act, 2010 was unanimously passed with the support of all political parties in the Parliament and was promulgated on 20 April 2010. The Act includes 102 amendments in all, which amended, substituted, added or deleted various provisions of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The amendment realigns executive powers by restoring the prime minister as the premier civilian official and returning the presidency to its original, more ceremonial role, largely eliminates the 17th amendment constitutional changes made by former President Musharraf to strengthen the presidency. Zardari thus gave up key presidential powers. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had less interest in trying to force Zardari out once his presidential powers were reduced to that of a figurehead president, while Zardari would in any event remain a powerful political figure by virtue of his role co-chairing the PPP.

The reform package also reorganized center-province relations, empowering provincial assemblies to elect their own chief ministers. The constitutional reform package helped Zardari shrink the moral high ground Nawaz Sharif had gained on the 17th amendment issue, while also keeping the smaller nationalist parties that favor provincial autonomy, including ANP and MQM, on the PPP's side.

The Army

Pakistan's army has traditionally shied away from monopolizing power for extended periods, preferring to "manage" civilian politicians and drive through constitutional adjustments to protect its prerogatives and its vision of the national interest. For reasons relating to the military's residual professional culture and its general disdain for politicians, pressure within the ranks to relinquish governance to civilian rule tends to rise over time. The military is keenly attuned to Pakistan's vulnerabilities, whether from external enemies (e.g., India) or internal threats in the provinces (e.g., Baloch nationalism). As India's economy has boomed, senior Pakistani military leaders have realized that the economy is also a national security concern. In the military's eyes, civilians are nave on matters of strategy, threatening the nation's security through corruption and mismanagement of the economy.

Whether in or out of power, the Army has enforced an unwritten rule that effectively bars civilians from interfering in matters of national security (Kashmir, India, Afghan policy), military procurement, defense spending and internal military administration (such as promotions). When in power, the Army has sought to maintain the trappings of democracy, including referenda, elections and national assemblies. President Musharraf took this further than any of Pakistan's previous military leaders, moving to devolve authority to the local level by establishing local bodies with indirectly-elected leaders at the District level (nazims), who have de jure decision-making and financial authority.

The polarization between the civilians and the military has been the fundamental dynamic of Pakistani political life for decades. Both sides are clearly at fault. The dysfunctionality of democratic institutions is largely due to the sustained interference of the military. However, civilian leaders have also done their part to justify the military's apprehensions and grievances. The country manages to muddle along largely because this polarization has been tempered by family, clan and social ties that connect the elites.


The position of President in Pakistan has traditionally been one of a figurehead, with actual powers lying with the Prime Minister. However, at various times in history, often related with military coups and the subsequent return of civilian governments, changes in the Constitution have altered the powers and privileges associated with the Office of the President. The current Constitution gives the President reserve powers, subject to Supreme Court approval or veto, to dissolve the National Assembly, triggering new elections, and thereby dismissing the Prime Minister.

The president, in keeping with the constitutional provision that the state religion is Islam, must be a Muslim. Elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of members of the Senate and National Assembly and members of the provincial assemblies, the president is eligible for reelection. But no individual may hold the office for more than two consecutive terms. The president may resign or be impeached and may be removed from office for incapacity or gross misconduct by a two-thirds vote of the members of the parliament. The president generally acts on the advice of the prime minister but has important residual powers. One of the most important -- a legacy of Zia -- is contained in the Eighth Amendment, which gives the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly "in his discretion where, in his opinion . . . a situation has arisen in which the Government of the Federation cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and an appeal to the electorate is necessary."

In 2010, the Parliament passed the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan, removing the power of the President to dissolve the Parliament unilaterally, turning Pakistan from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic. The amendment is expected to ease political instability in Pakistan and counter the sweeping powers amassed by the President's Office under former Presidents Pervez Musharraf and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The historic 18th Amendment reverses many infringements by military rulers over several decades on the Constitution of Pakistan. The amendment was passed by the Senate on 15 April 2010 and became an Act of Parliament when President Asif Ali Zardari put his signature on the bill on 19 April 2010. It was the first time in the history of Pakistan that a president willingly relinquished a significant part of his powers and transferred it to Parliament and the Office of the Prime Minister. No elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its full term. This bill is the first bill since 1973 to decrease the powers of the president.

Parliament and Federal Government

The bicameral federal legislature is the Majlis-i-Shoora (Council of Advisers), consisting of the Senate (upper house) and National Assembly (lower house). Members of the National Assembly are elected by universal adult suffrage (over eighteen years of age in Pakistan). Seats are allocated to each of the four provinces, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and Islamabad Capital Territory on the basis of population. National Assembly members serve for the parliamentary term, which is five years, unless they die or resign sooner, or unless the National Assembly is dissolved. Although the vast majority of the members are Muslim, about 5 percent of the seats are reserved for minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. Elections for minority seats are held on the basis of joint electorates at the same time as the polls for Muslim seats during the general elections.

The prime minister is appointed by the president from among the members of the National Assembly. The prime minister is assisted by the Federal Cabinet, a council of ministers whose members are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. The Federal Cabinet comprises the ministers, ministers of state, and advisers.

The Senate is a permanent legislative body with equal representation from each of the four provinces, elected by the members of their respective provincial assemblies. There are representatives from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and from Islamabad Capital Territory. The chairman of the Senate, under the constitution, is next in line to act as president should the office become vacant and until such time as a new president can be formally elected. Both the Senate and the National Assembly can initiate and pass legislation except for finance bills. Only the National Assembly can approve the federal budget and all finance bills. In the case of other bills, the president may prevent passage unless the legislature in joint sitting overrules the president by a majority of members of both houses present and voting.

Other offices and bodies having important roles in the federal structure include the attorney general, the auditor general, the Federal Land Commission, the Federal Public Service Commission, Election Commission of Pakistan, and the Wafaqi Mohtasib (Ombudsman).

Provincial Governments

Pakistan has four provinces - Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province [formerly known as North-West Frontier Province], Punjab, and Sindh - and numerous Federally Administered Areas. Provincial boundaries correspond with areas of numerically dominant linguistic groups, and provinces are divided into a total of 26 divisions that are further subdivided into 101 districts. Federally administered areas include the capital (Islamabad) and 13 Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs) as well as the western third of Jammu and Kashmir, although Kashmir's status is contested by India.

Each province has a governor appointed by the president, and provinces also have an elected legislative assembly and a chief minister who is the leader of the legislative assembly's majority party or coalition. The chief minister is assisted by a council of ministers chosen by the chief minister and formally approved by the governor. Federally administered areas also have their own legislative entities, which have had less autonomy from the federal government than provincial legislatures. However, tribal areas in the west have traditional legal systems that operate independently of the federal government. Various regimes have promoted local-level Basic Democracies so that communities can have input into federal policy, but these entities have suffered from inconsistent federal government support.

Although provinces and federally administered areas have their own political and administrative institutions, federal government agencies were heavily involved in the affairs of these areas. There were some matters over which both federal and provincial governments could make laws and establish departments for their execution. Moreover, the federal government has the power to dismiss provincial chief ministers and legislatures.

Pakistan's four provinces enjoy considerable autonomy. Each province has a governor, a Council of Ministers headed by a chief minister appointed by the governor, and a provincial assembly. Members of the provincial assemblies are elected by universal adult suffrage. Provincial assemblies also have reserved seats for minorities. Although there is a well-defined division of responsibilities between federal and provincial governments, there were some functions on which both can make laws and establish departments for their execution. Most of the services in areas such as health, education, agriculture, and roads, for example, are provided by the provincial governments. Although the federal government could also legislate in these areas, it only makes national policy and handles international aspects of those services.

The 18th Amendment had huge implications on the overall allocation of subjects between the Federation and the provinces, entailing a structural shift in the roles and responsibilities at the provincial level. The concurrent list (with 47 subjects) was abolished while the provinces have been given the additional responsibilities to handle the business of 17 federal ministries. Importantly, the provinces now have an exclusive role in policy-making in crucial sectors such as health, education, agriculture and environment to name a few.


The judiciary includes the Supreme Court, provincial high courts, and other lesser courts exercising civil and criminal jurisdiction. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is appointed by the president; the other Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president after consultation with the chief justice. The chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court may remain in office until age sixty-five. The Supreme Court has original, appellate, and advisory jurisdiction. Judges of the provincial high courts are appointed by the president after consultation with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as well as the governor of the province and the chief justice of the high court to which the appointment is being made. High courts have original and appellate jurisdiction.

There is also a Federal Shariat Court consisting of eight Muslim judges, including a chief justice appointed by the president. Three of the judges are ulama, that is, Islamic Scholars, and are well versed in Islamic law. The Federal Shariat Court has original and appellate jurisdiction. This court decides whether any law is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam. When a law is deemed repugnant to Islam, the president, in the case of a federal law, or the governor, in the case of a provincial law, is charged with taking steps to bring the law into conformity with the injunctions of Islam. The court also hears appeals from decisions of criminal courts under laws relating to the enforcement of hudood laws that is, laws pertaining to such offences as intoxication, theft, and unlawful sexual intercourse.

In addition, there are special courts and tribunals to deal with specific kinds of cases, such as drug courts, commercial courts, labor courts, traffic courts, an insurance appellate tribunal, an income tax appellate tribunal, and special courts for bank offences. There are also special courts to try terrorists. Appeals from special courts go to high courts except for labor and traffic courts, which have their own forums for appeal. Appeals from the tribunals go to the Supreme Court.

A further feature of the judicial system is the office of Wafaqi Mohtasib (Ombudsman), which is provided for in the constitution. The office of Mohtasib was established in many early Muslim states to ensure that no wrongs were done to citizens. Appointed by the president, the Mohtasib holds office for four years; the term cannot be extended or renewed. The Mohtasib's purpose is to institutionalize a system for enforcing administrative accountability, through investigating and rectifying any injustice done to a person through maladministration by a federal agency or a federal government official. The Mohtasib is empowered to award compensation to those who have suffered loss or damage as a result of maladministration. Excluded from jurisdiction, however, are personal grievances or service matters of a public servant as well as matters relating to foreign affairs, national defense, and the armed services. This institution is designed to bridge the gap between administrator and citizen, to improve administrative processes and procedures, and to help curb misuse of discretionary powers.

On 09 March 2007, President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan's Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on various corruption charges. Chaudhry had developed a reputation for judicial activism during his short time on the bench and ruled against the Government of Pakistan in several high-profile cases. Islamabad's legal and media circles are abuzz with speculation about what motivated the President, but genuine facts are scarce. Whether this was a case of high-level corruption or part of a broader struggle for control of the judiciary, the hands-on manner in which President Musharraf went about suspending Chaudhry seized the attention of the media.

The vast majority of Pakistanis were not adequately literate to understand the intricacies of the Chief Justice proceedings, or how this controversy affected the things that mattered most to them: food, shelter, and personal safety. On 20 June 2007, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that President Musharraf's suspension of the Chief Justice had been unconstitutional. The court's decision was not unexpected, a fact that did not stop the media from turning the day leading up to the announcement into a live-from-in-front-of-the-Supreme-Court spectacle.

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