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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Backgrounder: Pakistan's Constitution

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer

March 6, 2008


Pakistan’s constitution has been undermined greatly by a circular pattern of military coups interspersed with short-lived civilian rule. Today, Pakistan’s leading political parties are demanding a shift away from presidential power and far greater executive power for the prime minister. Additionally, they demand an independent judiciary and the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf in November 2007 under his state of emergency. Demands for such sweeping changes have a long history in Pakistan, which has repeatedly revised or reinvented its government’s charter, often under duress during times of military rule. Not until 1973 would a constitution be written by a democratically elected assembly. Even following that, the document has been continually reshaped by coups and the wishes of powerful members of Pakistan’s political elite.

Historical Context

Experts say some of Pakistan’s main constitutional principles and controversies still stem from colonial times. At the time of its independence in August 1947, Pakistan inherited the Government of India Act of 1935 (PDF) as its constitutional model—a framework designed by a colonial power to govern a colony that provided for a strong central government, a bureaucracy dominated executive unanswerable to the legislature, and very limited representation with continuation of feudal domination over politics. Under this act, the head of the state was the governor-general and legislative functions were performed by the constituent assembly, which was tasked with enacting a new constitution. The governor-general had the power to appoint or dismiss ministers at his discretion as well as assume emergency power.

  • 1956 Constitution: The constitution of Pakistan that came into existence on March 23, 1956, abolished the office of the governor-general and provided for power-sharing arrangements between the president and the prime minister.

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Copyright 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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