The Pakistani Military's New Coup Playbook

Democracy Is Still on a Leash in Islamabad

Will Democracy Survive? Protests in Islamabad, 2013. (Zohra Bensemra / Courtesy Reuters)

Pakistan is on the verge of an historic moment: This spring, for the first time, an elected administration will hand off power to another one after serving out its term. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government, which came into power in 2008 following reasonably free and fair elections, holds a number of dubious distinctions -- its massive corruption, its refusal to expand Pakistan’s miniscule tax base by imposing industrial and agricultural taxes on parliamentarians and their patronage networks, its inability to address the colossal power and gas shortages that have plagued the country, its weakness in addressing Pakistan’s pervasive security problems, and its inability to stem intolerance against religious and ethnic minorities. But despite the litany of shortcomings, the PPP’s achievements are remarkable.

For one, the serving parliament has passed more legislation than any other in Pakistan’s history. The government has also gone a long way toward institutionalizing democracy, including making considerable efforts to take responsibility for foreign and defense policy-making, which are typically the bailiwick of the powerful army. Although the parliament has carefully managed this process so that it does not fundamentally challenge the army, the Pakistani people have nevertheless grown accustomed to seeing politicians weighing in on such hefty issues. Meanwhile, President Asif Ali Zardari is the first sitting Pakistani president to have ever devolved extensive presidential powers to the prime minister, no small accomplishment in a country where the president has often enjoyed more power than the prime minister or parliament. Zardari has also made unprecedented strides to pass power to the provinces, in order to mitigate the long-standing grievances of those in Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province), as well as the tribal areas. The government has even seriously flirted with reforming how the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are governed. The current codes date back to the colonial era and are ill-suited to a modern democracy.

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