Pakistan’s Institutions and Civil Society

Pakistan’s Institutions and Civil Society

A look into Pakistan’s institutions, civil society, and the various players less known.

Last updated August 25, 2008 8:00 am (EST)

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Pakistan’s army and its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have long been on top of the power structure in the country. Through coups, support of militants, and interference in their neighboring countries’ affairs, they have directly or indirectly held onto power and been at the center of decision making in the country since its creation in August 1947. Militant Islamic groups are the other powerful players, sometimes standing on the same side as the government, as in the case of jihadis trained and recruited to fight wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and sometimes against the government—as with those fighting Pakistan’s security forces today.

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Pakistan has been in political turmoil since former army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup. Through two controversial votes, he remained president for almost nine years until he announced his resignation in August 2008. Experts say Musharraf’s legacy has been a mixed one on fighting terrorism, economic reforms, and encouraging the growth of civil society. He started off with a reformist agenda, liberalizing the economy and the media, and going after militants in the tribal areas. However, his undemocratic moves in 2007—including a declaration of a state of emergency, and repression of judiciary and the media—triggered wide-scale pro-democracy protests. In response to Musharraf’s rule, the country’s lawyers and civil society groups have emerged as important players in the power dynamics of a state traditionally dominated by the military.

Supreme Court and the Judiciary

The chief justice of the supreme court is appointed by the president. According to the Pakistani Constitution, the judiciary is separate from the executive and is set up as an independent authority to uphold the rule of law. The Supreme Court stands at the apex of the country’s judicial systems; it has wide jurisdiction, which includes the ability to issue pronouncements on issues it considers of public importance with reference to the enforcement of any of the fundamental rights. These include the right to life and liberty, the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to fair trial, and the right to equality among others.

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There is a high court in each of the four provinces, and there are other courts that exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction. Pakistan also has a Federal Shariat Court comprising eight Muslim judges, including a chief justice appointed by the president. Cases involving interpretation of Islam are referred to this court. Legal scholar Paula R. Newberg notes in her book, Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan, that Pakistan’s courts and judges are cast as protectors of the constitution in a separation-of-powers system. In many circumstances, however, they have found it expedient or necessary to accommodate constitutional changes or unconstitutional maneuvers by Pakistan’s leaders. They have done so either because they thought this was essential to their own survival or that of the state. On three occasions when military coups ousted democratically elected governments in the country, "the judiciary not only failed to check extra-constitutional regime change, but also endorsed and abetted the consolidation of illegally gained power," says a 2004 International Crisis Group (ICG) report. Newberg argues that over time, this has weakened the rule of law and given the government leeway for ever-more repressive action.

In November 2007, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and several other supreme court judges refused to sign Musharraf’s decision to suspend the constitution and rule by decree. "This is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history," says Hassan Abbas, research fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Abbas says Chaudhry, through his suo moto (acting on his own initiative) actions, has demanded greater accountability for bureaucrats, police, and even the intelligence agencies, something that was inconceivable in Pakistan before him. He also gained support of Pakistan’s lawyers, who are one of the best networked communities in the country, able to reach deep into rural areas. But the ICG report writes that the executive "exercises control over the courts by using the system of judicial appointments, promotions and removals to ensure its allies fill key posts."

Civil Society Organizations

Civil society in Pakistan comprises nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations, think tanks, trade unions, cultural groups, and informal citizen organizations. In 2001, Civicus, an international alliance of civil society groups, described Pakistan’s civil society as a "collection of incoherent voices, conflicting worldviews and opposing interests" characterized by "unresolved struggle between the practices and values of pre-capitalist society and new modes of social life, between authoritarian legacies, and democratic aspirations." According to the report, there are:

Because the political space afforded to civil society organizations is limited, these organizations have limited impact on policymaking and implementation. But Abbas says they are increasingly emerging as an important group. "Every time there is a crackdown by government or the military, these activists are the first to be rounded up. This means the military is challenged by them," he says.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is one of the leading organizations fighting for human rights and democratic development in the country. It has loudly condemned the practices of the military and political parties. Hina Jilani, the UN secretary general’s first special representative on human rights defenders in 2000, Asma Jahangir, UN special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission, and I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, are well-known names in Pakistan who have gained prominence in the international community. They derive power from their high international profiles and alliances to international civil-society organizations.

Political Organizations

Pakistan has more than ninety registered political parties covering a broad spectrum, from ethnic-based to religious to secular. The major parties are:

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  • Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Founded by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967, the PPP was headed by his daughter Benazir Bhutto until her assassination on December 27, 2007. The Party is now cochaired by Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari and their son Bilawal Zardari Bhutto. The PPP has been in power three times before. Benazir Bhutto’s government was removed twice on charges of corruption and mismanagement. To avoid arrest on corruption charges filed by her successor Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto went into exile in 1999 and returned to Pakistan in October 2007 as part of an amnesty deal signed with Musharraf. In February 2008 elections, the PPP emerged as the dominant party in the new ruling coalition.
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  • Pakistan’s Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). PML inherited the legacy of the Muslim League, the party which dominated the pre-1947 struggle for the creation of Pakistan on the basis of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. It split into several branches, the most prominent being PML-Nawaz and PML-Quaid-e-Azam. PML-N is headed by a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and represents the business, industrial, and feudal interests in the country. Sharif, like his rival Bhutto, faced charges of corruption. After winning the second-largest number of votes in February elections, PML-N, in an unprecedented move, formed a coalition with the PPP. But following disagreements with the PPP, Sharif pulled out of the coalition in August 2008.
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  • Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).A coalition of religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan. The MMA ran the government in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and was part of a coalition in Balochistan with PML-Q until February 2008. The party is strongly opposed to the "war on terror" and has deep ties with the Taliban both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, the MMA did, at times, reach accomodations with Musharraf’s government. The party fared poorly in February 2008 elections, losing to the Awami National Party in the NWFP.
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  • Awami National Party (ANP). A Pashtun nationalist party, it was formed in 1986 by the merger of several left-leaning parties. It is led by Asfandyar Wali Khan, son of the party’s first president Khan Abdul Wali Khan, and grandson of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Ghaffar Khan, also known as "Frontier Gandhi" due to his close association with India’s leader Mahatma Gandhi, was opposed to the creation of Pakistan. The party believes in nonviolence and its political base mainly comprises the Pashtuns of the NWFP and northern Balochistan. After winning the maximum number of seats in the NWFP in February’s elections, the party leads the province’s ruling coalition. It also won seats in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh.

Even though there are a huge number of political parties in the country, the class base for most parties has failed to move beyond the traditional elite. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey says Pakistan is still a very top-down society "where a small elite sits above a massive base, and the inequalities of power and opportunities are extreme."

Internal power struggles in the absence of party elections have frequently led to the fragmentation of political parties, adding to the increasing number of political groups in the country. Moreover, "in terms of ideology," writes the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, "the major political parties have been moving closer towards each other, and generally steering away from agendas advocating radical social change."

Media Organizations

Pakistan has a history of vibrant, private, and independent print media such as English language newspapers, Dawn, The Frontier Post, Daily Times, The Friday Times, The News, and Urdu language newspapers like the Jang and Daily Khabrain. But print media cannot serve as mass media in a country where more than half the population is illiterate. With only 47 percent literacy (PDF), compared to an average of 60 percent in South Asia, Pakistan’s newspapers fail to reach a significant segment of population, especially in the rural areas. While newspapers inform the educated in urban areas, in rural Pakistan, people have long depended on radio and state-run telelvision channels for information in the absence of any private broadcast media in the country.

When Musharraf assumed power, he changed the landscape for private broadcast media in the country. A range of television, and radio outlets, as well as Internet sites, opened up as more and more private players won licenses to operate. Now Geo TV network, ARY-TV, and AAJ TV compete with state-run news channels.

On The Media, a weekly National Public Radio program, described the changes Musharraf wrought as a cultural breakthrough. Freelance journalist Shahan Mufti told On The Media that until Musharraf opened up the media, "Pakistanis were used to being told things through the state media." But now after private news channels started operating, "it allowed all sorts of voices of all political persuasion to appear on TV." But the new and young broadcast media came into conflict with its creator in March 2007. The media showed live coverage of events as they unfolded when Musharraf tried to sack former Chief Justice Chaudhry, stirring up such public outcry against the decision that the president had to reinstate the judge.

The year that followed was the worst ever for the media in Pakistan in the country’s sixty-one-year history, states a May 2008 report (PDF) by the journalism watchdog group Internews Pakistan. According to the report, fifteen journalists got killed between May 2007 and May 2008, the highest number in any one year. After Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November 2007, he ordered a media blackout and new laws were imposed to curb the media. The report says government authorities arrested and abducted journalists attacked media properties, and Islamabad emerged as the "media threat capital" of Pakistan. Yet "the media has emerged as one of the key stakeholders on the political scene," it asserts.

Stock Market and the Economy

After seizing power in a coup in 1999, Musharraf undertook economic reforms, including fiscal adjustment; privatization of energy, telecommunications, and production; banking sector reform; and trade reform. According to economists, these have played a key role in the country’s economic recovery. The World Bank says that external factors—such as low interest rates, increased external assistance, and debt restructuring—also played a role. After 9/11, increased remittances and additional support from the United States helped increase the country’s external reserves. Since 2003, the economy has grown by more than 6.5 percent per year and poverty has declined significantly.

The main stock index rose more than 1,000 percent between the end of 2001 and 2007. Despite some of the worst unrest in years, the economy continued to hum through 2007. The United States is the largest investor in Pakistan, accounting for nearly one-third of the country’s foreign direct investment from July 2007 to September 2007, according to Pakistan’s ministry of finance. CFR’s Markey says the success of the financial markets and the expansion of the economy under Musharraf had been fundamental to his staying power. By keeping their money in Pakistan, investors—both domestic and international—continued to prop up the government.

But political uncertainty and a deteriorating security environment in the past year have affected capital inflows and curtailed investment. The economy has been on the decline as Pakistanis suffer frequent blackouts and spiraling food and oil prices. In July 2008, inflation was over 24 percent, the highest in thirty years. The Economist Intelligence Unit paints a bleak outlook for the country in 2008-09. According to its estimate, real GDP growth (by expenditure) slowed to 3.6 percent in 2007-08, down from 6.4 percent the previous year.

The Asian Development Bank says Pakistan faces issues of long-term sustainability (PDF), especially in the context of high global oil and commodity prices and domestic political uncertainties. According to its report, Pakistan’s current account deficit in the first seven months of fiscal year 2008 worsened by 47 percent compared with the same period in 2007. It says the deficit is under pressure because of a higher oil import bill and deteriorating income and services accounts.


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