History and Government

HISTORY : In ancient times, the area that now comprises Pakistan marked the farthest reaches of the conquests of Alexander the Great. It was also the home of Buddhist Ghandaran culture. It was not until 1947 and the independence of India, that Pakistan acquired nationhood. Under pressure from Indian Muslims led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah - considered to be the ‘father of the nation’ - the British created a separate Muslim state. Originally, it consisted of two parts, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now a single unitary state), separated from each other by 1600km (1000 miles) of Indian territory. Jinnah, the leading Muslim inside the Indian Congress party that led the independence struggle (see India section), became the new country’s first president.

In contrast to India, democracy failed to take root and Pakistan suffered prolonged periods of military rule. The first of these came in 1958, when martial law was declared and political parties abolished. The martial law ‘co-ordinator’, General (later Field Marshall) Ayub Khan, became President in 1960. He was replaced in 1969, by the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Agha Muhammed Yahya Khan, who resisted demands for autonomy by the eastern region of the country, where civil war broke out in 1971. The intervention of the Indian army on the side of the secessionists eventually secured an independent Bangladesh, leaving a truncated Pakistan in the west. Democratic civilian government followed the defeat and President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took over as president from the discredited military regime.

In 1977, however, the military again took power in a coup and re-established martial law under General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Bhutto was executed in 1979. Military rule continued until the death of General Zia in a plane crash in 1988, after which a democratic constitution and civilian government were re-instituted. Despite a strong challenge from the military-backed Islamic Democratic Alliance, Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, long the focus for opposition, came to power as leader of the Pakistan People’s Party. But in August 1990, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto and her government, accusing her and it of corruption and nepotism. The electoral campaign that followed was an exceptionally violent one, in which Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party was heavily defeated by the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA), led by Mohammed Nawaz Sharif.

The Sharif government suffered from all the problems of its PPP predecessor. In July 1993, the army engineered its removal and supervised new elections, which were held in October. These were won by Benazir Bhutto and the PPP. The second Benazir Bhutto government was no better than the first. (None of Pakistan’s recent civilian governments have made much headway in tackling the country’s huge economic and political problems). The situation was particularly bad in Karachi, where the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), the political organisation of the Mohajir (descendants of refugees from India, following the creation of Pakistan in 1947-48), has a major presence and engaged in regular confrontations with the government and security forces. In 1996, a political reform movement emerged, led by former cricketer Imran Khan, known as the Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice). Despite much favourable publicity, the lack of a substantial political base or policies has since consigned it to the political fringes.

Later that year, President Leghari, although he was originally a political ally of Bhutto, dismissed her government. Nawaz Sharif returned to office the following February, in an election marked by an extremely low turnout. Watching this revolving door of Pakistani politics over the previous ten years, the military had remained on the sidelines. This time, however, their patience was to be stretched beyond endurance. The process began in May 1998, when Sharif authorised the military to carry out a series of nuclear tests. International reaction was swift and vehement; wide-ranging, crippling sanctions followed.

The nuclear programme had begun in 1971, after Pakistan’s defeat by India and progressed steadily with Chinese assistance thereafter. Pakistan is now believed to possess at least a handful of nuclear warheads and the means of delivery. The conflict with India (also a nuclear power) is a central feature of Pakistani politics, particularly with regards to the attitude and posture of the military, with a long-running dispute over the status of Kashmir as well as the nuclear standoff. Throughout 1998 and 1999, the army assumed a more aggressive stance towards India, engineering a number of border clashes and other incidents. But in August 1999, under pressure from the USA and elsewhere, Sharif ordered the army to back down.

This triggered a series of clashes between Sharif and his army chief of staff, General Pervez Musharraf, which culminated in October 1999, with a military coup. Musharraf, unusually for a senior general, is a Mohajir and originally from northern India. The coup was generally popular among the people and, despite routine condemnation from abroad and suspension from the Commonwealth, Musharraf was given time to stabilise the country and try and tackle the endemic corruption and chronic mismanagement. Then, in 2001, events in neighbouring Afghanistan - Pakistan’s other major foreign policy interest - put Pakistan at the centre of the world stage and provided an unexpected political and economic opportunity.

The 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in the USA drew an immediate and massive response from the US government. Its targets were the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda (The Base) organisation and its host, the Taleban regime. Pakistan had been intimately involved with the creation of the Taleban (roughly ‘students of Islam’), most of whom had fled from Afghanistan and enrolled in government-backed mudrassas (Islamic colleges). The graduates were recruited into the mujahidin guerrilla formations fighting the Soviet invaders. These veterans, who had since relocated into the southern provinces of Afghanistan, formed the core of the Taleban movement. Moreover, the Pathans of Pakistan, who are especially well represented in the military, are closely linked to the Pashtun, Afghanstan’s largest ethnic group, who also made up most of the Taleban.

The US demand for assistance in deposing the Taleban thus put the Pakistani government in something of a quandary, although General Musharraf quickly decided to back the USA. The decision paid immediate economic dividends in the lifting of the 1998 sanctions and the promise of a substantial financial aid package. Senior officers suspected of active sympathy for the Taleban were edged out. Within weeks, the Taleban had been driven from power.

At home, the Musharraf government sought to establish its popular legitimacy by holding elections for the national assembly as well as a referendum on his presidency, in October 2002. These returned General Musharraf - now partially reinvented as a civilian president - while his supporters took control of the national assembly. The general is extremely unpopular among parts of Pakistani society - he was the target of at least six assassination attempts in 2002 - but, for the time being and until the emergence of a civilian political leader untainted by gross corruption and incompetence, he is probably the best prospect for the future of his country.

GOVERNMENT : The constitution and legislature have been suspended under the military regime, led by general Pervez Musharraf, which took power in October 1999. The constitution, which dates from 1985, allows for a bicameral legislature comprising a 207-member National Assembly and an 87-member Senate, the former directly elected by universal suffrage and the latter elected by four provincial assemblies. In April 1997 executive powers were transferred from the president to the prime minister. This divested the president of the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, to dissolve the legislature, to order a national referendum and to appoint both provincial governors and armed forces chiefs.

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Information provided by Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.


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