Against the odds of history

The recent elections portend a democratic deepening in Pakistan. This is a moment to build on.

The surprising landslide of Nawaz Sharif marks a historic moment in Pakistan’s political history. Many are optimistic that Pakistan has taken a momentous step towards strengthening its democracy. But for this opening to endure, Pakistan must overcome the long odds of history.

To be sure, there are reasons to hope that last month’s election marks a turning point in Pakistani politics. High voter turnout and fair elections produced an unambiguous mandate for a single party that can govern with less backroom wrangling than previous civilian administrations. Moreover, despite Taliban-directed violence, the elections evinced democratic engagement among Pakistan’s youth, which constitutes two-thirds of the country’s population.

For democracy to consolidate, though, this engagement must be channelled into strategically side-lining the military and the tough, slow work of building of political parties that have organisational depth and programmatic commitments beyond their charismatic leaders. This challenge is hardly new for Pakistan — it is eerily similar to the situation Pakistan faced upon Independence in 1947. That year, Pakistan and India were created amidst nationalist fervour, under the leadership of charismatic leaders, possessing militaries confined to the barracks and nationalist political parties that had governed in pre-independence colonial provinces.

Despite these similarities, India and Pakistan’s first independent decade witnessed a startling democratic divergence. India promulgated a representative Constitution, held fair national elections, and installed an accountable chief executive, while Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly was twice dismissed and a military coup formally arrogated governing power in 1958. Six decades and three military coups since, no civilian government in Pakistan was allowed to finish a term in office — until last month.

What catapulted Pakistan onto such a dramatically different trajectory? And what lessons can one draw from this divergence for the democratic crossroads at which Pakistan currently stands? My research shows that the most critical explanation for these different democratic trajectories lies in the organisational capacities of their nationalist political parties. This organisational capacity continues to condition Pakistan’s ongoing political instability today.

Upon Independence, though Pakistan inherited a more pressing economic situation and a larger refu