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What is fueling political instability in Pakistan?

Illustration for article titled What is fueling political instability in Pakistan?

The deeply divided political system in Pakistan makes for strange bedfellows. Former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation on August 18 shed light on one marriage of convenience, a short-lived ruling coalition led by two of Pakistan's largest political parties—the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).


The December 27, 2007 assassination of PPP leader and former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto galvanized Pakistani opposition parties to join forces against President Musharraf. After the February 18 parliamentary elections this year, PPP and PML-N came together as a ruling coalition with the Awami National Party and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal. The coalition had what seemed to be a five-point plan: 1) Impeach Musharraf. 2) Reinstate sixty judges summarily deposed last year after refusing to recognize Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency. 3) Do away with the president's constitutional powers to dismiss government and the parliament. 4) Put forward a non-partisan candidate for president. 5) Restore democracy in Pakistan. One week after checking off a critical item on its to-do list—forcing Musharraf's resignation—the coalition collapsed.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, announced on August 25, following Musharraf's resignation, that his party was pulling out of the 5-month-old ruling coalition for two main reasons. First, the PPP failed to honor its promise to reinstate, in one executive order, all judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Secondly, the PPP nominated its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, as presidential candidate in the September 6 vote. Zardari, Sharif and his party argued, does not represent the "non-partisan candidate" for presidency it had agreed to when forming the ruling coalition.


Since the announcement on August 25, Pakistan has reportedly reinstated eight judges. There are reports that more judges will return to the bench in the coming week. Debate continues over the fate of Chief Justice Chaudhry, who disputed an amnesty deal that allowed Zardari to return to Pakistan from exile.

The one constant in Pakistan political life is the gross frailty of democratic institutions, particularly political parties. These organizational and personality rifts within and among political parties have a long history in Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Zulkifar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's father, founded the PPP 40 years ago. It was the first populist political party in Pakistan to challenge Pakistan's military rulers in the early 1970s. The PPP was both anti-military and secular.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PML) was once part of the Muslim League, the party that formed the first government of Pakistan in 1947. PML, pro-military and Islamic, became the military's response to Bhutto's PPP. This tradition of the military having its own political party evolved over the following decades until Nawaz Sharif first became prime minister in 1990 and formed the PML-Nawaz Group. Sharif, who was elected as prime minister again in 1997, decided in the late 1990s to appoint a head of the army that he perceived as both weak and having few natural allies. Sharif underestimated the political acumen of his newly minted Army Chief of Staff, General Pervez Musharraf. General Musharraf deposed Sharif in a 1999 military coup. This rift emboldened the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

The list of differences between the PPP and the PML-N is long and complex. What fundamentally plagues the political crisis in Pakistan is that the prize of the presidency is too great to entertain a true power-sharing deal.


Sundaa Bridgett Jones is director of the Scholars in the Nation's Service Initiative at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

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