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Democratization Under Duress: The Legacy of Military Influence on Pakistan's Political System

Pakistan's political landscape pulsates with volatile power struggles between the military and the constitution. This constant tug-of-war has produced a series of seismic upheavals, from Imran Khan's dramatic ouster in 2022 to the ongoing debate over early elections. While these shifts reshape the country's future, they also leave ordinary citizens grappling with economic uncertainty and an ever-shifting sense of national identity. 


Pakistan's diverse ethnic and linguistic landscape necessitated a federal political structure post-independence in 1947, which was crucial for political harmony in the newly emerging nation. However, the principles of federalism have been undermined since independence due to the increased dominance of the central government and the military.  


Pakistan's political system, often deemed a "hybrid regime", has been heavily influenced by the military's enduring role in its structure and processes. This influence, rooted in incomplete transitions to democracy, has manifested in various ways, including the 1958 military coup that abrogated the constitution and significantly disrupted democratic progress.


In Pakistan, the military is closely associated with the concept of the "deep state”. This term refers to a form of governance consisting of potentially secretive and unofficial networks of power that operate independently from the state's political leadership. The Pakistani military has intervened in the electoral process - (1) Directly, staging military coups and assuming executive authority, (2) Indirectly, exerting influence during civilian rule through behind-the-scenes involvement. Essentially supporting candidates who align with the military's interests. 


Pakistan marked a milestone with peaceful transitions of power in 2013 and 2018, representing the first time two democratically elected governments succeeded each other. However, navigating the delicate balance between civilian and military power has remained a constant challenge. Accusations of military interference in the 2018 election favoring Imran Khan further strained this dynamic. Throughout his term, Khan's policy disagreements and appointments led to a growing rift with the military, with significant consequences for Pakistan's political stability and policy direction. 


These actions sparked significant protests across the country. While the unrest led to over 4,000 arrests, fatalities, and substantial damage to infrastructure, it also saw the rise of armed resistance against the military from some within the protest movement. The complex socio-political and economic climate of the time likely contributed to the intensity of the unrest, which continues to challenge Pakistan's stability.


As the ongoing crisis persists, Pakistan is on the brink of economic depression, and political turmoil often has long-lasting consequences, making the need for a stable political environment the primary concern. The ongoing conflict has deterred foreign investors from committing to a country in a state of war, resulting in a 25 percent decline in the fiscal year 2022-23 as compared to the previous year. Along with the rising inflation, employers have started downsizing, causing large-scale unemployment and deteriorating the standard of living. The conflict has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, displacing millions of people from their homes and rendering them reliant on humanitarian assistance. The government has been compelled to divert resources from economic development to provide aid, further straining the economy. In sum, the civil war is taking a severe toll on the Pakistani economy, with adverse effects on foreign investment, tourism, inflation, infrastructure, and the diversion of resources towards humanitarian aid. These challenges substantially hinder the nation's economic stability and growth prospects.


Furthermore, a profoundly concerning aspect of the current crisis in Pakistan is the increasing restrictions on dissent, mainly press freedom and freedom of expression. Recent instances of silenced journalists, banned political rallies, and media blackouts raising concerns among human rights defenders and international watchdogs. These limitations on open discourse threaten the foundations of democracy in Pakistan and stifle the crucial role of a free press in holding power accountable.


Conducting free and fair elections remains a popular solution supported by diverse political actors. Elections represent a potential solution for Pakistan's challenges by offering a peaceful and democratic means to transfer power and foster genuine accountability in government. While free and fair elections won't automatically solve all problems, they can pave the way for a more stable government, a vital element for sustained economic growth. Through transparent and participatory elections, citizens gain a peaceful avenue to voice their concerns, potentially mitigating the appeal of violence and extremism. It's crucial to remember that elections alone are not a magic bullet; genuine commitment to democracy from all stakeholders – political parties, the military, the judiciary, and the citizenry – is necessary to uphold and strengthen the process. Only then can transparent elections catalyse sustained economic growth, greater stability, and a peaceful avenue for addressing Pakistan's challenges, potentially mitigating violence and extremism while paving the way for a more prosperous and inclusive future.


From the outset, Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned a nation rooted in democratic principles. While successive leaders have strived for this ideal, the persistent struggle for political stability suggests a disconnect between aspirations and reality. Securing personal power often trumps the collective well-being of the nation. Perhaps it's time for a paradigm shift, where leaders, both civilian and military, prioritize the aspirations and needs of the Pakistani people who have borne the brunt of this prolonged political instability. Their resilience and unwavering spirit deserve to be met with a renewed commitment to building a stronger, more prosperous Pakistan for all. Only time will tell whether Pakistan can navigate this volatility towards a more stable and prosperous future.


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