The Roots of Pakistan’s Democratic Failure


Today, many Pakistanis blame democracy for the ills of society. To a large extent they are right. However, these ills are not recent but are rooted in problems decades old – making us as a nation ill-suited to democratic consolidation. In this piece I argue that democratic failure in Pakistan is to large part, though not exclusively, an enduring legacy of Partition and Independence in 1947.

Democratic, Pakistan, Election

In this piece I will attempt to establish a connection between the process and results of Partition and democratic failure in Pakistan. Thus, do the roots of democratic failure in Pakistan lie in Partition? I argue that some very crucial origins of democratic failure are the consequences of Partition; deficiencies which were not overcome and thus were exacerbated in the early years of post-Independence. Partition was necessary,[1] however its consequences led to substantive democratic consolidation failures later.[2]

The first and most important effect of Partition was that Pakistan, upon creation, had to build a new central government from scratch. Unlike India, who already possessed a long standing central power structure which the Congress Party could continue on with, the Muslim League having been a part of that same Indian Central Government, had no access to its resources after Partition – other than the limited personnel and meager resources it received.[3]  This meant that Pakistan’s new governing elite (the renamed Pakistan Muslim league) was thoroughly focused on power consolidation and building working administrative structures of state and economy (in addition to rehabilitating the millions of refugees of Partition), rather than having the freedom to start to consolidate a tradition of democracy. The unequal division of resources between India and Pakistan only exacerbated the fiscal and administrative constraints – with the 1948 Kashmir conflict eating up much needed capital and effort.[4] Speeches by Pakistani leaders in the early years do point to a will to engender a functioning democracy, however practical constraints made this impossible.[5] Another by-product of the drive to build a functioning government was that in the early years this led to over-centralization in the central power structures in Karachi. Democratic scholars, prime amongst them Dahl (Yale)[6] and King (Essex),[7] have theorized that over-centralization is antithetical to democracy because it excludes a large proportion of the populace from effective participation.

Parallel with inherited issues of government, political developments were also highly non-conducive to early democratic consolidation in Pakistan. The All-India Muslim league was a participant in the pre-Partition democratic processes in India (though intra-party democracy was negligible); hence it did have strong democratic ideals. However, its post-Partition successor was less concerned with being democratic. The primary reason for this was the Muslim Leagues’ lack of organizational presence in Muslim majority provinces before Partition.[8] Leaving aside popular legitimate approval of its actions regarding Independence, the party was highly geared towards landed elites from the ‘old Muslim families’ (many from UP).[9]  The further euphoria of Independence and lack of viable opposition meant that the League hardly needed to reinforce its legitimacy by going to the people through elections. The ‘Governor-General system’ took it for granted that the League was the only representative for Pakistanis. Not only did this mean that Pakistan’s first elections were held only in 1954 (that too, indirect election), a good seven years after Independence; but also led to a culture of elitism in government and a failure in the fostering of a democratic generation – a path which India was able embark upon fairly quickly.

Thirdly, research has shown that there is a strong correlation between elite consensus in a country, and that country’s ability to begin democratic consolidation.[10] India did have this elite consensus.[11] Apart from limited opposition from extreme parties on both sides, Indian elites –the most influential landowning, commercial and political interests- very early on agreed on broad general frameworks of a governance system. This lack of open conflict (albeit with constructive opposition), fostered a system of accommodation,[12] meaning that though any government policy or decision was very slow to be implemented in India (leaving aside the Indira Gandhi authoritarian populist interlude), such decisions and policies were undertaken with widespread consultation and approval. The fact that this occurred within a Congress framework, in what was still essentially a one-party state was, in my judgement, more conducive to democratic consolidation because it veiled the spectre of ‘open political conflict’.

In Pakistan, though a lack of elite consensus meant that a centralized government was able to take quick and resolute policy decisions,[13] some segment or another (for lack of consultation and a stake in power) was a loser – leading further to many powerful interests openly warring against the center of power in Karachi. This then led slowly to a widening of ideological boundaries between segments of society (who later formed viable political parties), which until very recently, would not and could not work together – leading to a crisis of democratic functioning, thus resulting three times in the military having to intercede and lessen the impact on governance.[14] Compare this with India’s main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, who, though campaign rhetoric might lead you to think they are poles apart, are actually very similar ideologically.[15]

Another reason for this is because they are (BJP and Congress) national parties they need to attract a wide diversity of voters. This leads us to the next point, which is political representation. The Congress had a long tradition of successfully attracting a large cross-section of voters across India, which it continued after Partition. But, as stated before, the League had little across-the-board representation before Partition, hence there was no such tradition to continue. Its failure to remedy this after Partition has led to successor parties and new ones basing their political success by catering to specific sections of the population – ethnic, religious, sectarian or provincial. This has further led to instability in the democratic process. Only recently has this trend begun to shift – 67 years after Independence.

Lastly, the combination of factors presented above led to a monumental blunder – the delay in approving a constitution for Pakistan. A constitution is the legal instrument of democracy (where it is democratic of course); it lays the official rules for formal democracy which can then be used to foster substantive democracy. The failure of Pakistan’s leaders to come to an agreement and adopt a constitution early on damaged prospects for democracy. In the years 1947-1956 there was a crisis of governance stemming from the lack of a viable working constitution (the Govt. of India Act was grossly insufficient),[16] which resulted in widespread discontent and thus eventual approval and demand for non-democratic stable government. Looking at similar jurisdictions to Pakistan, I maintain that for democracy to have begun its journey in the early years of Pakistan and then to have successfully continued for a longer period, the country needed to have a preceding period of economic and administrative success – dependent on a working agreed constitution.[17] The lack of an instrument for a framework of democratic consolidation was the last legacy in a non-exhaustive list of consequences of Partition for democracy.


In this short piece I have alluded to the most important reasons why I believe the failure of democratic consolidation in Pakistan stems from a number of issues connected to Partition. Some of these issues could have been remedied early on but for a number of reasons were not, others are products of tradition and culture which are harder to change. Coupled with problems which have been exacerbated later on (which I have not mentioned here), it makes it near impossible for populist democracy in Pakistan to deliver the good governance that we all expect. Unless these issues are addressed and certain preconditions for the healthy fostering of democracy met, I believe we must look to other methods of government which hold better promise.


[1] Another discussion altogether

[2] Contrast with mere formal democracy which has been experienced in Pakistan intermittently and is not this essay’s focus.

[3] Jalal, 1995

[4] Ibid.

[5] See for example the early speeches (after Aug 1947) of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

[6] Dahl, 1998

[7] King, 2012

[8] Cohen, 2006

[9] Husain, 2000

[10] See Dahl & King.

[11] Mahmood, 2002

[12] Think Belgium/Switzerland.

[13] This explains to some extent why Pakistan far outpaced India in economic development until the 1970’s. India was only able to realize its potential when democratic consolidation was near complete and significant reforms/policies could be implemented without major confrontations in politics, or the disenfranchisement of large segments of the population. Pakistan attempted to follow a Singapore/South Korea/Malaysia enlightened authoritarian developmental state/export driven path (albeit the countries I mention here embarked upon this path later), however it failed where these states succeeded because its authoritarian periods were not long enough or ‘authoritarian’ enough.

[14] Iskander Mirza’s rapid changing of political appointees to hold on to power was a major factor which led to Ayub Khan’s intervention and Pakistan’s first period of Military rule.

[15] Misra, 2010

[16] Mumtaz, 2002

[17] See the Asian Tigers who transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy through economic success and administrative competency.



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is a geostrategist and commentator on Pakistani Defence, Development and Foreign Affairs. He is currently studying governance related issues at the University of Oxford. He can be reached at and tweets at @Hasan_QureshiPK

Discussion7 Comments

  1. The author does not apper to understand what democracy is…democracy is simply an organized method of transferring power from one entity to the next…it is the votes of the people who choose their own leaders and it is done in an orderly fashion without violence…that is it and Pakistan has just recently achieved it with the completion of one term of office by one administration and the transfer of power to another after an election…Pakistan is now a democratic nation of the people, by the people and for the people…

    • Erm, I’m sorry bro, but you don’t have the first idea about democracy!

      Democracy is not just elections or transfer of power! That’s orderly populism.

      Please go read some of the authors the writer is mentioning incluuding Dahl and King, and also go further back to see what democracy really is from Athens to liberalist intrepetations today.

      Dont be that kind of Pakistani who screams democracy but has no idea what it is.

      Your definition of democracy is the worst I have ever heard.

      • You are entitled to,your opinion…but I disagree with those who try to make democracy more than it is…those who expect democracy to solve all problems of the economy…or expect democracy to bring world peace, they are oblivious to reality…democracy is simply a form of government…it is not socialism or communism or theocracy…it is just government of the people…

  2. Author has tried to find out reasons in an event like partition and independence whereas democracy is a slow process of evolution. Unfortunately Pakistan had many dictators right from the begining and hence the sense of self governance got suppressed. Good or bad,the pakistanis must ensure that the army does not topple the govt. but any change should be through constitutional means. if at all, people can force mid term elections… gradually the roots will become stronger.

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