Does Democracy Have a Future in Pakistan?

The break between the military and former prime minister Imran Khan marks a new era of instability. Is this the rise of an autocratic deep state or the fall of authoritarian populism?

By Ayesha Jalal

December 2023

On 9 May 2023, Pakistan marked a watershed in its history. That day, paramilitary forces in riot gear arrested former prime minister and national sports icon Imran Khan on corruption charges, sparking violent protests nationwide. In an unprecedented attack on the most powerful institutions of the state, crowds assaulted Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, burned down the Radio Pakistan studios in Peshawar, and vandalized martyrs’ memorials to police officers and soldiers killed in the line of duty. In Lahore, a senior general’s official residence—it also happened to be the historic home of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder—was vandalized and gutted. There were acts of deliberate arson, and at least five people (all Khan supporters) were killed.

The leadership of Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, or PTI) distanced itself from the violence, calling it the work of agents provocateurs sent by the national intelligence establishment. Using Chinese geofencing technology, the coercive arms of Pakistan’s military-dominated state began identifying those who took part. Police arrested thousands, including women supporters of the PTI who in many cases remain in jail.

On August 5, Khan himself was rearrested for having sold diplomatic gifts given to him while he was prime minister (2018–22), and then hiding the proceeds. Among his penalties was a five-year ban, issued by the Electoral Commission of Pakistan, on his ability to run for or hold public office. A trial court also gave him a three-year prison term after finding him guilty of corruption in the gift-trafficking affair. At the time of this writing in November 2023, the 71-year-old Khan remains incarcerated along with many of his supporters. More than 150 cases are still pending against him. The most serious of these—it could carry the death penalty—has to do with his alleged misuse of a secret diplomatic cable in an attempt to prove that he has been the victim of a U.S.-orchestrated conspiracy. Other grave charges relate to his alleged role as “mastermind” of the May 9 incidents.

The relationship between the former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team and the country’s military has been likened to a troubled marriage in which a breakup takes place, but may not be final. Now that the military sees Khan (at least for the time being) as a “failed experiment,” will the generals return to barracks, or might they want to give other and still more novel political experiments a try? Should the fraying of the autocratic coalition between the soldiers and a populist politician such as Khan give any hope to those who wish to advance the cause of democracy in Pakistan? Have we been watching the smothering of democracy by an autocratic deep state, or the thwarting of authoritarian populism by defenders of liberal constitutionalism?

These questions defy easy answers. Intense infighting within the world of state institutions and the ruling elite has widened the gulf between political leaders and ordinary people. Apathy grows. A stagnant economy made worse by the covid-19 pandemic languishes as the powerful clash; basic aspects of governance go neglected as social discontent spreads. Political uncertainties are hardly new in Pakistan, but the coming together of economic crisis, political strife, and climatic disasters such as drought have sharpened age-old concerns about the country’s stability. Can Pakistan overcome its present state of political and moral disrepair? To have any sense of an answer, we must consider the last decade’s worth of interconnected developments and their influence on national prospects.

Frailties of Democracy

Pakistan has struggled to establish a stable democratic state structure consistent with its federal configuration throughout its history. The year 2013 saw the first transfer of power from one elected government to another—truly a milestone for a country whose history had long been mostly one of direct or indirect military rule. There were hopes of a break with the past and a deepening of democracy, marking an end to the army coups that have been a bane since 1958.

Just four years after he won the 2013 election and formed a majority government, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was dismissed on corruption charges by the Supreme Court. Much of the bar condemned this decision, but the generals backed it. In 2018, an election closely choreographed by the military and its intelligence agencies brought Khan to power. Many regard the PTI’s victory that year as the result of brazen electoral manipulation by the establishment of senior bureaucrats, high-ranking judges, and the armed forces’ top brass.

Pakistan was back to square one. The illusory shift from military to civilian authority between 2008 and 2013 had given way to well-orchestrated hype about a “hybrid” form of government in which the soldiers and civilians were supposedly on the same page. In an ideal world, such an arrangement might well have worked. Imran Khan was a perfect mascot for a military high command looking for an alternative to Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Khan had led Pakistan to its only cricketing World Cup in 1992, and then built his following even higher by leading a successful drive to build a cancer hospital in the name of his late mother. An ethnic Pushtun of middle-class origin, Khan has lived most of his life in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, the province that is home to more than half of Pakistan’s 242 million people. His education at Aitchison College (the prestigious Lahore prep school) and Keble College, Oxford, together with his celebrity status as a world-class cricketer gave him privileged access to elite society.

Sports celebrities do not transition easily into politicians. Khan formally entered politics in 1996 by founding the PTI. The following year, it ran in eight constituencies but failed to win a single seat. Politics, realized the former cricket captain turned politico, was a game for the doers and go-getters, not idealists. Seeing pragmatism as the route to glory, he toyed with the idea of providing a civilian face for General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime. He was overlooked in the power arrangement that emerged after the 2002 elections but did win one seat. Not a parliamentarian by temperament, far less a revolutionary, Khan made effective use of social media and electronic broadcasting to craft a classic populist narrative of “us” versus “them”: seekers of justice and truth against perpetrators of injustice and lies. He turned his fire on the two mainstream political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by the Bhutto family and the PML-N. Echoing the establishment’s charge that these parties’ higher-ups were crooks and abusers of power, Khan vowed to end corruption within ninety days of assuming power.

The PML-N won the 2013 election nationally, but the PTI was able to form a government in the Pushtun-dominated province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After failing to get the PML-N government to investigate allegations of electoral irregularities in certain constituencies, Khan launched a dharna, or protest movement, in unison with the Pakistani-Canadian Islamic scholar Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. Founder of a civil society group and a political party, Qadri was an outspoken opponent of Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz, who at the time was chief minister of Punjab. The Khan-Qadri protest movement was more striking for its theatricality than its political sagacity. For more than four months, it was a spectacle of clashing shipping containers in the streets in Islamabad, the national capital. Police placed the first ring of containers to keep demonstrators out of the high-security zone around the diplomatic community, only to be countered by the PTI’s own containers blocking selected thoroughfares. Despite television coverage, the demonstrations drew crowds numbering only in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands that the PTI had hoped to mobilize. These performative protests, punctuated by bouts of live music and Qadri’s rhetorical flourishes, were suspended in December 2014 after a terror attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School left 150 victims dead.

In a country where democracy has been a victim of power politics controlled by the army high command, strengthening the national Parliament is a common-sense objective. But then everyone also knows that the shortest route to power in Pakistan is to win the army’s favor. Identified as a potential asset by military intelligence as far back as the mid-1990s, Khan was fully weaponized following Nawaz Sharif’s July 2017 removal. Making use of the PTI’s extensive social-media presence and ties to the large community of Pakistanis abroad, Khan built a populist narrative in which he slammed the Sharifs and other PML-N leaders for corruption. He blamed them and the PPP for all the ills besetting Pakistan’s poor and vulnerable citizenry. This populist appeal worked to a degree, but the more important reason for his 2018 electoral success was the military establishment’s backing: He was the choice not of any single general, but of the high command as an institution. If Musharraf had found Khan wanting in 2002, opposition to Nawaz Sharif and the need to promote someone to counter him made Khan a natural ally for the top generals a decade and half later.

Removing an elected prime minister who heads a majority in Parliament is no easy matter. With backing from army high command, the cashiering of Nawaz Sharif was engineered in a manner that has stained the reputation of the judiciary in Pakistan. In the aftermath of this judicial coup, the singular character of the political narrative on television channels, the pro–Imran Khan tilt, and the hope of a naya, or new Pakistan, to say nothing of anti-Sharif sentiments, gave the PTI a clear edge in the run-up to the 25 July 2018 balloting.

On election day, however, even the deployment of armed soldiers inside polling places was not enough to ensure the desired results from a divided Punjab. Instead, it was necessary to suspend electronic reports of the counting for several hours due to an alleged information overload at the Election Commission’s end. Punjab still split narrowly, with the PTI and the PML-N dividing its 141 seats in the 336-member National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, by 67 to 64. The small PTI edge in the 371-member Punjab Provincial Assembly mirrored this result: Khan’s party took 184 seats to the PML-N’s 164. The Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a new far-right party with roots in Barelvi Islam, took most of the remainder. Although the TLP won very few seats (and they were all in Sindh Province), its presence on the ballot managed to affect the dynamics of competition in about a third of the constituencies in Punjab, raising suspicions that the intelligence agencies may have been using the TLP to pull votes away from the PML-N. The PML-N accepted the results but joined the rest of the political opposition in questioning the use of state power to lift Khan and the PTI.

At one level, the result from Punjab represented the political divisions in the province. But at another, it reflected the army’s preferred balance of power and offered the military more options to advance its own interests rather than a united civilian one. It was also the best way of keeping Imran Khan under control. As the cricketing hero was about to learn, there is no such thing as a permanent honeymoon. Despite an advantageous relationship with the all-powerful army, as prime minister he still had to navigate the structural contradictions that beset Pakistan’s imperiled democracy. With little interest in learning the ins and outs of parliamentary politics, Khan proved to be lackadaisical when it came to matters of state, a failing that caused deep chagrin to his main patron, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, as early as 2019. The misstep by Khan that will likely be best remembered was his insistence on elevating Usman Buzdar—an obscure, inexperienced figure from southwestern Punjab—as the PTI’s choice for provincial chief minister. Khan could not bear the thought of a potential rival running Pakistan’s largest federal unit, so he ensured that the job would go to someone nonthreatening despite the cost to governance.

Buzdar is alleged to have raked in piles of cash with an approach that was a novelty in Pakistan: He sold provincial offices to the highest bidder. The alarming deterioration in administrative performance in what had been the country’s best-run province set alarm bells ringing at army GHQ. Having nurtured, promoted, and protected Khan for decades, the army now felt compelled to detach itself from him. Pakistan’s closest allies—China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—were cool to the PTI government, heightening military anxieties. A clash between Khan and the army chief over who would fill senior military posts, and especially the director-generalship of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), proved to be the last straw. While GHQ stood by, the PPP recruited allies across party lines to pass a motion of no confidence in Khan on 10 April 2022. His popular-approval rating was low since he had failed in four years to pull the stagnant economy out of its doldrums, and indeed had added almost 35 percent to Pakistan’s accumulated debt. The vote was close (174 to 168), but that hardly mattered: Khan was out.

Khan’s claim that he had fallen to a secret, U.S.-led conspiracy and not a broad coalition of his domestic opponents using regular parliamentary procedures and a public no-confidence vote has attracted international attention. Khan himself, however, has changed his story. The coded, classified cable that he released (Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington sent it, and it quotes a U.S. official saying that U.S.-Pakistani relations would improve were the no-confidence motion to pass) at first led Khan to assume a posture of outrage and demand that Washington start firing people. But in a leaked audio recording, the ousted prime minister was heard telling a senior aide “let’s play with it.” Khan dropped the “U.S. conspiracy” line, preferring to claim that General Bajwa, his former patron, was behind the no-confidence vote.

Khan’s first impulse, to capitalize on the anti-American mood of the populace with his conspiracy claims, did serve (at least for a time) to shift attention away from his failings as prime minister. Instead of answering for his record, he could play on an old theme well known to the people of Pakistan: pressure and interference from Washington. Holding massive protest rallies throughout the country, Khan spoke to rapt crowds, repeating falsehoods and half-truths in a manner so theatrical that it verged on the absurd. His loyal following cheered each time he attacked the new government of Shehbaz Sharif and denounced the now-retired General Bajwa. The PTI’s skill at using the internet was of great service in these efforts, although the party’s reliance on the web would prove a two-edge sword: When the wave of arrests for May 9 was being prepared, most PTI loyalists to be charged were tracked down via their communications on social media.

Enthusiasts for the PTI find it hard to accept just how damaging May 9 has proven to be to Imran Khan. Outside the PTI, analysts agree that the May 9 incidents were not spontaneous acts of anger on the part of devoted followers, but rather had been planned to stir a revolt within the military against the serving army chief, General Asim Munir. Once the army chief was out of the way, the story goes, Khan expected to return to power with the backing of a friendly Supreme Court (Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial has made his pro-Khan attitudes clear in both rulings and his public statements). Egged on by retired army officers and diaspora social-media followers far removed from the rough-and-tumble of everyday life in Pakistan, Khan took the Supreme Court’s rulings in his favor as a sign that the military establishment still mostly backed him. Seemingly certain of his indispensability to GHQ, he reacted to his May 9 arrest with surprise and defiance, and the result (whether intended by Khan or not) was the riots. The PTI is now withering under GHQ hostility, but the prickly thorn plants that have sprouted from seeds planted by those who brought Pakistan the “Imran Khan Project” are still present and sharp in both state institutions and society at large.

Dissonance between state policy and the direction of public opinion is nothing new in Pakistan. Often overlooked is the role played by the state itself in creating narratives that it subsequently wants to deny. Will there be any way out of this for Imran Khan? The plain truth is that the military-dominated establishment is in no mood to forgive and forget May 9. Police actions against those suspected of committing arson and vandalism that day have been unduly harsh. The arrest of PTI women leaders and workers has drawn sharp criticism from a cross-section of society. But to the guardians of law and order, what arguably might have started as a legitimate protest but then got out of hand was in fact nothing short of sedition.

Officials’ claims that Imran Khan “masterminded” the May 9 riots remain to be established in a court of law. At the time of this writing in November 2023, whether he will be tried in the civilian justice system or by the military remains unclear. On October 23, a five-judge panel of the Supreme Court ruled that the practice (dating to the 1970s) of trying civilians in military courts is unconstitutional. The government is appealing that ruling. If it stands, Khan will be tried in a civilian antiterror court. This would introduce the possibility of a death sentence—a risk that he would not face as a civilian tried in a military court. Fears of a death sentence have persisted because he also faces a charge under the Official Secrets Act in the leaked-cipher case. Violations of that law can also be punished by as few as two years in prison, however, and Khan’s popularity would make executing him politically difficult if not impossible. Memories still run strong of how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (admittedly a far more popular and experienced leader than Khan), was sent to the gallows in 1979 by order of a military-backed Supreme Court. The reputation of the Court still suffers from its having played a role in that miscarriage of justice, and senior jurists are unlikely to want to reprise the affair 45 years later.

The Prospects of Democracy

Are free and fair elections conceivable in Pakistan soon and will the PTI be allowed to contest on a relatively even playing field? If the PTI runs but fails to win decisively, will it accept the results or turn to protests as happened after the 2013 elections? Voting had been due by early November 2023, but the completion of Pakistan’s first digital census and consequent need to redraw districts led to a delay. After a Supreme Court intervention, the Election Commission consulted President Arif Alvi and 8 February 2024 became the agreed polling date. The imprisoned Imran Khan is unlikely to be allowed to lead the PTI campaign.

This will not represent the first disqualification of a popular politician in Pakistan’s history. In the 2002 elections, held under General Musharraf’s military rule, both the late Benazir Bhutto (the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and, like him, head of the PPP) and Nawaz Sharif were barred from taking part. Sixteen years later, Nawaz Sharif was again banned from the hustings. On 21 October 2023, he ended four years of self-imposed exile by flying home to a hero’s welcome as courts stayed his arrest for a 2018 corruption conviction and cleared a path for him to launch legal appeals as a free man.

The circumstances of Nawaz Sharif’s return have raised familiar questions about the fairness of the political playing field and the establishment’s habitual insistence on “selection before election.” Speaking to a large crowd in Lahore, he said that he had not come back to seek revenge, but intended to focus on reviving the economy and bringing the cost of living under control. That cost has spiked under a national government headed by the younger Sharif brother, of course, raising questions about whether the PML-N will be able to revive its plunging political fortunes in Punjab.

Moreover, despite his claims to have forsworn all desire for vengeance, Nawaz Sharif will likely seek a showdown with the now-retired generals (not only Bajwa, but also former ISI head General Faiz Hameed) whom Nawaz blames for derailing him with the 2018 corruption charges. The establishment, it seems safe to say, would prefer that Shehbaz Sharif remain prime minister. Big brother Nawaz, however, is the figure with ties to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies who can run on promises that he will attract billions of their dollars to invest in Pakistan’s flagging economy. Perhaps that will be enough to secure him a fourth turn in the prime minister’s office.

If the PTI is allowed on the ballot under its traditional cricket-bat symbol, could Khan’s party run a close second to—or even beat—the PML-N in crucial Punjab? The signs are pointing to another manipulated election, with the difference that the party which the army disfavored and made to lose in 2018 is now the establishment’s favored party. Even if the PTI accepts Khan’s banning, an engineered defeat will not sit well with party activists and supporters. In 2018, the PTI enjoyed the military establishment’s overwhelming support but still faced tough PML-N competition. In 2024, the races in Punjab will again be tight, but the PTI, as the party out of power, can blame the current unpopular government for the high cost of living. Ongoing political instability has aggravated spiraling inflation caused by an acute balance of payments crisis, delaying talks with the International Monetary Fund and precipitating the Pakistani rupee’s crash in value compared to the U.S. dollar. The government’s loose coalition of anti-Khan parties (grouped under the name Pakistan Democratic Movement) will have to face the consequences of having been in office during the worst economic crisis the country has ever faced.

Moneyed interests and big business have always had close ties to the upper echelons of the military, and are now calling for improving the economy before straightening out the political mess. Elections have already been delayed, however, and trying to push them back still further would be overwhelmingly dangerous. Worries about terrorist attacks and bad winter weather have not held up elections in the past, and with triennial Senate elections set for March 2024, the prospect that National Assembly races could be pushed back past February 8 seems dim.

What might an election achieve under the present circumstances? Legitimacy is required to underwrite badly needed structural reforms in the economy and governance. But what if, as has happened repeatedly in Pakistan’s history, losers reject the results and refuse to recognize the electoral process as legitimate? Contested legitimacy may be better than no legitimacy, but will it be enough to secure the political stability that Pakistan so desperately needs? The country urgently requires enduring agreement across the political spectrum, with buy-in from both the elected and nonelected institutions of state, on basic constitutional issues such as rules of procedure and the jurisdictional limits of the different state institutions. Military interventions have prevented identification with or commitment to the 1973 Constitution, a document that is meant to ensure rights equally to all citizens regardless of religion, gender, class, or linguistic identity. Practice can help to make perfect, but not if constitutional norms are constantly being rewritten at will. Such rewritings, like deep electoral disputes, have been the norm rather than the exception. A cross-section of political parties approved the 1973 Constitution, and it has survived despite the ambitions of two military rulers (Musharraf and General Zia ul-Haq before him) to displace it.

During the fifty years since the 1973 Constitution’s adoption, however, the document has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. Relations between the center and the federal units have suffered because of this. After Musharraf stepped down in 2008 and elected civilian government returned, the provinces were accorded more financial resources. Then a 2010 amendment stripped the president of powers to dismiss an elected cabinet and National Assembly. The military, citing tensions with India and the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, is intent on expanding its own budget; this makes the larger share of revenues going to the provinces a problem in GHQ’s eyes. Desiring a 15.7 percent increase in defense spending during the budget year spanning 2023 and 2024 and always eager to keep politicians under control now that GHQ can no longer simply have the president fire them, the top brass have hit upon corruption cases filed by the Musharraf-era Accountability Bureau (NAB) as a favorite expedient.

The NAB route was used to force Nawaz Sharif from office and was meant to mark the return of the military high command (backed by the senior judiciary) to its accustomed place as the paramount political authority in Pakistan. The “Imran Khan Project” split the military establishment, however, and with it the judiciary. Cracks are showing as courts disagree with one another. Successive Supreme Court chief justices have also been accustomed to issuing suo moto orders that have dragged the judiciary into areas well beyond its purview. Add to this the army’s creeping takeover of numerous areas of life such as news reporting, literary festivals, the arts, and entertainment, and we see a country beset by institutions that chronically overreach while just as chronically underperform. Stability, political legitimacy, and national self-confidence all suffer.

Governmental ineptitude and a general sense that things were about to spin out of control were underlined in November 2017, when thousands of TLP members blocked the main highway into Islamabad and Rawalpindi as a protest against what the party claimed were moves to undermine the country’s law against blasphemy. The three-week standoff that ensued would end with the federal justice minister being forced to resign, but not before heavy-handed application of force by the authorities had resulted in seven deaths and around two-hundred injuries. General Hameed of ISI ended up being a signatory of the formal agreement that ended the protest while granting members of the army-connected TLP immunity from arrest (the party would also not be banned from the upcoming 2018 election). The general’s actions were a gross violation of the constitutional requirement that serving military officers must stay out of politics. Supreme Court justice Qazi Faez Isa reviewed the matter suo moto and issued a 2019 order in which he commanded the armed forces to “initiate action against” any person under military command who had violated the service oath by meddling in a political matter. In military-dominated Pakistan, a high-profile public rebuke of GHQ such as this was something new under the sun.

Instead of backing the judgment and upholding constitutional principles, Imran Khan’s PTI government responded by approving an inquiry into the finances of Justice Isa and his wife. The TLP had run candidates in the 2018 election who together received more than two-million votes and acted as spoilers sapping PML-N support and enabling the PTI to win a third of Punjab’s constituencies. After its strong electoral showing, the TLP pressured Khan to exclude a top economist from his team because he was an Ahmadi. The TLP is violent: In 2018, one of its members wounded the federal planning minister in an assassination attempt, and it was behind the December 2021 lynching of a Sri Lankan factory manager suspected of blasphemy.

The military’s reliance on extremist elements like the TLP as “game pieces” for the generals to play against the parties is dangerous, and has been a major force behind the spread of internal hatreds within the country. Pakistan has been imploding in slow motion for decades, but its current predicament is beyond anything seen before. Elections are an important step in the right direction, but voting alone cannot fix the multipronged problems that plague Pakistan. Bold decisions must be taken to increase national productivity, stretch the tax net to include commercial classes, and curb the specter of a resurgent terrorism orchestrated by the TLP. With the ruling classes and key state institutions divided and the pursuit of money and power taking precedence over principle and dedication to improving conditions for those on the margins of society and polity alike, the prospects are grim.

With a commonality that reaches across political divides, the people of Pakistan want change. The party with the most convincing plan for an economic turnaround is the one most likely to catch the imagination of the voters. There has been speculation that the six-month delay of the election from August 2023 to February 2024 is the result of machinations by a military hoping that economic improvement might occur under an interim setup, thereby stealing the political parties’ thunder. Whatever the true story might be, it seems unlikely that an even playing field will be available for the campaign. Instead, we are likely to witness a variation of 2018, with a fragmented result and divisive politics stage-managed by the intelligence agencies at GHQ’s behest. Whichever party winds up taking office will find itself looking down the barrel of more “business as usual.” The possibility of a short-lived elected government cannot be ruled out. Instability is in the cards unless and until Pakistan can find its way out of the current economic maelstrom and into smoother seas.

The chances of a genuine democratic dispensation emerging anytime soon can be ruled out. And we are also not likely to see any change in the authoritarian stripes of the Pakistani state when it comes to handling protests, regardless of the cause. While this may be an overly pessimistic assessment of the likely trajectory in the immediate future, the enveloping gloom can also be an incentive for the political parties to reassess and realign themselves. From the failed crackdown on then–East Pakistan in 1971 to the “Imran Khan Project” in recent years, the military establishment’s ability to get away with calling the shots while evading responsibility for its failed experiments has depended on the corruptibility and shortsightedness of politicians who prefer lining up with the powers that be to coalescing among themselves to advance the cause of democracy. With Qazi Isa now having been sworn in as chief justice, there may be a better opportunity for the Supreme Court to embrace the spirit of the constitution. The real test will come when he confronts cases dealing with human rights and the events of 9 May 2023.

If the key institutional stakeholders undertake to work with politicians instead of using, exploiting, and defaming them, Pakistan may well succeed in regaining lost ground and return to at least a semblance of normalcy. Corrections are needed on multiple fronts, not least in a dramatically altered conception of politics. One of Imran Khan’s most egregious errors was his refusal to communicate directly with opposition politicians on grounds of their alleged corruption. As he rues his days in jail, he must try and learn from his mistakes. Pakistan is facing monumental difficulties on several fronts, and a stable political process is vital for economic revival.

A revamped and expanded Charter of Democracy like the one that the PML-N and the PPP agreed on in 2006 as they worked together to dislodge Musharraf from power is long overdue. Such a compact could help to spark a much-needed debate about what kind of a social contract is best suited to the challenges facing the country. All the political stakeholders must be given an opportunity to present their respective cases to the electorate. But they must also arrive at an agreement on the rules of democratic political engagement. In the absence of some such agreement across the political spectrum, the authoritarian deep state will continue chipping away at the shrinking democratic space for principled political expression in Pakistan.

Ayesha Jalal is Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and author of The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (2017).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images