Will the Long March to Democracy in Pakistan Finally Succeed?

July 8, 2011
Sheila Fruman

To break its pattern of alternating democratic and military rule, Pakistan’s civilian government should assert authority over its military and intelligence agencies, involve civil society in building a robust legislative agenda, and investigate and prosecute corruption. The international community can help by maintaining support for Pakistani institutions and organizations that have strengthened democratic practices.


  • Pakistan has endured a cycle of alternating democratic and military rule since independence. A stable democracy has proved elusive due to the strength of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, religious parties’ support of the military at the expense of democracy, a compliant judiciary, weak and patrimonial political parties, and Western support for Pakistan’s dictatorships.
  • In 2007 and 2008, a mass movement of political parties and civil society succeeded in ousting General Pervez Musharraf, opening the way for a consolidation of democracy in Pakistan. The movement’s success can be credited to a number of factors: a unified coalition of political parties and civil society with the common goal of defending the judiciary’s independence; strong leadership from the lawyers and the judiciary itself; the return of influential political leaders from exile; the existence of private media that could contest the official version of events, promote an alternative narrative, and mobilize supporters; and an agreement between Pakistan’s key political leaders on a charter of democracy setting out a plan for Pakistan’s governance after the end of military rule.
  • Since Musharraf’s ousting, however, several obstacles have emerged to consolidating democracy. Despite the military’s own admission of shortcomings in developing intelligence on the presence of Osama bid Laden, the military and intelligence agencies appear to be tightly guarding their control of defense and foreign policy and operating in other areas of civilian jurisdiction. There is friction between the government and judiciary as they work out the balance of power between them, tension among the political parties as they negotiate the coalition government, a slow pace of reforming parliamentary and party practices, and weak participation by civil society. Allegations of corruption, which plagued past civilian regimes, have resurfaced.
  • To build on the move toward democracy begun by the mass movement of 2007 and 2008, the civilian government should assert authority over the military and intelligence agencies, include civil society and the greater public in creating a robust legislative agenda to address the key issues Pakistan faces, and investigate and prosecute corruption. Political parties should be strengthened in democratic practices. Civil society and the media should likewise be made more effective watchdogs and advocates for reform. For its part, the international community can become more engaged in strengthening democratic practices in government and civil society through expanded consultations and donor assistance and by maintaining long-term support for particularly effective civilian institutions and organizations

About the Report

This report, commissioned by the United States Institute of Peace, addresses one of the fundamental challenges to stability in Pakistan: sustained democratic rule. It discusses the successful civil society movement of 2007 and 2008 that led to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s ultimate ouster from office, assessing the effects of the movement and the institutional changes triggered by it on Pakistan’s quest for democratic consolidation. It suggests that, while the cyclical pattern of democratic and military rule in Pakistan may not be obsolete just yet, there is much that the government, civil society, media, and the international community can do to strengthen democratic practices there, building on the work that the mass movement began.

July 8, 2011