UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Pakistan - Politics

The First Thirty Years: 1947-1977

Since the independence of Pakistan in 1947 the country has been in varying degrees of political crisis. Pakistan has had a long record of Army involvement in politics. By 2002, the Army had ruled the country for 28 out of 55 years of Pakistan's independent history.

When Pakistan became independant it became clear that a constitution was required for the new state. The first major step in framing the new constitution was the passage by the Constituent Assembly of the Objectives Resolution of March 1949, which defined the basic principles of the new state. It provided that Pakistan would be a state "wherein the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed; wherein the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunna; [and] wherein adequate provision shall be made for the minorities freely to progress and practice their religions and develop their cultures." Seven years of debate, however, failed to produce agreement on fundamental issues such as regional representation or the structure of a constitution. This impasse prompted Governor General Ghulam Mohammad to dismiss the Constituent Assembly in 1954. The Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld the action of the governor general, arguing that he had the power to disband the Constituent Assembly and veto legislation it passed. This preeminence of the governor general over the legislature has been referred to as the viceregal tradition in Pakistan's politics.

The revived Constituent Assembly promulgated Pakistan's first indigenous constitution in 1956 and reconstituted itself as the national legislature, the Legislative Assembly, under the constitution it adopted. Pakistan became an Islamic republic. The governor general was replaced by a president, but despite efforts to create regional parity between the East Wing and the West Wing, the regional tensions remained. Continuing regional rivalry, ethnic dissension, religious debate, and the weakening power of the Muslim League, the national party that spearheaded the country's founding, exacerbated political instability and eventually led President Iskander Mirza to disband the Legislative Assembly on October 7, 1958, and declare martial law. General Mohammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first indigenous army commander in chief, assisted Mirza in abrogating the constitution of 1956 and removing the politicians he believed were bringing Pakistan to the point of collapse. Ayub Khan, as Mirza's chief martial law administrator, then staged another coup also in October 1958, forced Mirza out of power, and assumed the presidency, to the relief of large segments of the population tired of the politicians' continued machinations.

Although Ayub Khan viewed himself as a reformer, he was predisposed to the benevolent authoritarianism of the Mughal and viceregal traditions. He also relied heavily on the country's civilian bureaucrats, who formed the majority of his advisers and cabinet ministers. Ayub Khan initiated a plan for Basic Democracies, a measure to create a system of local government from the grass roots. The Basic Democracies system consisted of a mulitiered pyramidal hierarchy of interlocking tiers of legislative councils from the village to the provincial level. The lowest but most important tier was composed of union councils, one each for groups of villages having an approximate population of 10,000. The members of these union councils were called Basic Democrats. The union councils were responsible for local government, including agricultural and community development, maintaining law and order through rural police, and trying minor cases in conciliation courts.

Ayub Khan's martial law regime, critics observed, was a form of "representational dictatorship," but the new political system, introduced in 1959 as "Basic Democracy," was an apt expression of what Ayub Khan called the particular "genius" of Pakistan. In 1962 a new constitution was promulgated as a product of that indirect elective system. Ayub Khan did not believe that a sophisticated parliamentary democracy was suitable for Pakistan. Instead, the Basic Democracies, as the individual administrative units were called, were intended to initiate and educate a largely illiterate population in the working of government by giving them limited representation and associating them with decision making at a "level commensurate with their ability." Basic Democracies were concerned with no more than local government and rural development. They were meant to provide a two-way channel of communication between the Ayub Khan regime and the common people and allow social change to move slowly.

In 1960 the Basic Democrats were asked to endorse Ayub Khan's presidency and to give him a mandate to frame a new constitution. Ayub's constitution, promulgated in 1962, ended martial law, established a presidential form of government with a weak legislature (now called the National Assembly) and gave the president augmented executive, legislative, and financial powers. Adult franchise was limited to the election of Basic Democrats, who constituted an electoral college for the president and members of the national and provincial assemblies. The 1962 constitution retained some aspects of the Islamic nature of the republic but omitted the word Islamic in its original version; amid protests, Ayub Khan added that word later. The president would be a Muslim, and the Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology and the Islamic Research Institute were established to assist the government in reconciling all legislation with the tenets of the Quran and the sunna. Their functions were advisory and their members appointed by the president, so the ulama had no real power base.

This constitution was abrogated in 1969 when Ayub, who by then had lost the people's confidence, resigned, handing over the responsibility for governing to the army commander in chief General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan assumed the title of president and also became chief martial law administrator.

Although Yahya Khan established a semimilitary state, he also introduced changes that led to the return of parliamentary democracy. These changes ultimately resulted in the division of the country in two. Yahya held national elections in December 1970 for the purpose of choosing members of the new National Assembly who were to be elected directly by the people. However, the results of these elections, which brought the politicians once more to the fore, led to the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

Yahya accepted the demand of East Pakistan for representation in the new assembly on the basis of population. As a result, Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur ("Mujib") Rahman's Awami League won all but two of the 162 seats allotted East Pakistan out of the 300 directly elected seats in the assembly (thirteen indirectly elected women were added), and Mujib wanted considerable regional autonomy for East Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People's Party (PPP) emerged as the political victors in West Pakistan in the 1970 elections. Bhutto's intransigence, he refused to participate in the discussions to frame the new constitution, led to the continuation of martial law and the eventual political and military confrontation between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, which precipitated civil war and the country's dismemberment in December 1971. With Pakistan's military in disarray, Yahya resigned, and Bhutto was appointed president and civilian chief martial law administrator of a truncated Pakistan.

Bhutto lifted martial law within several months, and after an "interim constitution" granting him broad powers as president, a new constitution was promulgated in April 1973 and came into effect on August 14 of that year, the twenty-sixth anniversary of the country's independence. This constitution represented a consensus on three issues: the role of Islam; the sharing of power between the federal government and the provinces; and the division of responsibility between the president and the prime minister, with a greatly strengthened position for the latter. Bhutto stepped down as president and became prime minister. In order to allay fears of the smaller provinces concerning domination by Punjab, the constitution established a bicameral legislature with a Senate, providing equal provincial representation, and a National Assembly, allocating seats according to population. Islam was declared the state religion of Pakistan.

Bhutto had the opportunity to resolve many of Pakistan's political problems. But although the country finally seemed to be on a democratic course, Bhutto lost this opportunity because of series of repressive actions against the political opposition that made it appear he was working to establish a one-party state. In a final step, he suddenly called national elections in March 1977, hoping to catch the opposition unprepared and give his party total control of the National Assembly. When Bhutto's party overwhelmingly won the election, the opposition charged voting irregularities and launched mass disturbances requiring action by the army to restore law and order. Bhutto was ousted by the military, which again took control. This action resulted not solely from sheer political ambition but from the military's belief that the law and order situation had dangerously deteriorated.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list