Democracy and participatory governance are popular political nations in today’s world. Fair and free elections are the key pre-requisite of democracy. However, democracy lacks substance unless the electoral process is coupled with the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law, and civil and political rights and freedoms for the people. The state must practice the principle of equal citizenship irrespective of religion, caste, ethnicity and regional background. It must also ensure equality of opportunity to all for advancement in social, economic and political domains and guarantee security of life and property of its citizens.
Democracy in Pakistan faced a host of difficulties which did not let the democratic principles, institutions and processes develop firm roots in the polity. Pakistan started with the parliamentary system of governance but the legacy of institutional imbalance and authoritarianism, problems encountered in the setting up of the new state, the external security pressures and the fear of the collapse of the state adversely affected the prospects of democracy. Other factors that caused the problems for democracy included the crisis of leadership in the aftermath of the demise of Jinnah, failure of the Muslim League to transform itself from a nationalist movement to a national party, fragmentation and degeneration of the political forces and the rise of the bureaucratic-military elite. Long before the first military take over in October 1958 the dominant elite were talking about the unsuitability of liberal democracy for Pakistan. Intermittent constitutional and political breakdown, the ascendancy of the military to power and the efforts of the top brass of the military to introduce a political system that protected their professional and corporate interests made it difficult to create participatory political institutions and processes that could command the voluntary support of the diversified political interests. The military elite employed the democratic principles in a selective manner and their policy of co-option of a section of the political leaders and exclusion of others accentuated polarization and jeopardized the prospects of political accommodation and consensus-building.
The experience suggests that democratic institutions and processes stabilize and mature if their natural evolution is not obstructed by partisan considerations. These must function in their true spirit over time, offering all citizens and groups an equal and fair opportunity to enter the political mainstream and compete for power and influence. This helps to build support for the political institutions and facilitates their sustainability. In Pakistan, periodic breakdown of the political order and repeated military take-over or attempts by the top brass to shape the political process to their political preferences did not ensure political continuity and the competing interest did not get equal opportunity to freely enter the political mainstream.
Democracy and the autonomy of civilian institutions and processes has been the major casualty of the expanded role of the military. Whenever Pakistan returned to civilian and constitutional rule, the quality of democracy remained poor. It is a case of democracy deficit. The long term endurance of the political institutions and the prospects of democracy faces four major challenges in Pakistan: the non-expansion of participatory opportunities for those viewed as adversaries by the military dominated regime, the poor performance of the elected assemblies, failure to build consensus on the operational norms of the political system, and a drift towards confrontation, religious and cultural intolerance and extremism.
This does not mean that the people have given up on the primacy of the popular will, participatory governance, accountability of the rulers and governance for serving the people. The ideological commitment to these principles persists which will continue to question the legitimacy of non participatory and authoritarian governance and political management.