Phases of democracy and dictatorship in Pakistan – Gen. Zia Ul Haq

Dictatorship in Pakistan

Zia ul Haq assumed power on 5th July, 1977 bringing an end to the six and a half year democratic rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.  General Zia ul Haq justified his move under the pretext of saving the country from anarchy. He also promised of holding free and fair elections. It was further declared that the military after restoring democracy would return to barracks. Conversely in 1980, the Zia regime backing off from its main objective of the restoration of democracy implemented Islamic reforms under military. Some political observers contend that initially, Zia cleverly made use of the support and the opposition that Bhutto had from his followers and his Islamist rivals.

Zia cleverly presented himself as the savior of the state to Bhutto’s supporters and an extremely pious and religious man to the latter’s Islamist rivals. According to some observers, Zia soon after assuming power gave the impression of being the defender of faith. Therefore, the opposition to Zia was seen as opposition to faith, this gave him the pretext to close down some newspapers and suppress all criticism against him. The late Benazir Bhutto in her autobiography makes mention of the phone conversation between Zia ul Haq and Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto on a private line still being intact in the Prime Minister’s House. Zia ul Haq at first apologized to Bhutto for taking such a serious action and confirmed that the ousted Prime Minister was held in a protective custody. Zia informed Bhutto that his family could stay in the Prime Minister’s house for a month. He further promised Bhutto to hold free and fair elections within Ninety days.

Zia’s promise of free and fair elections was not even taken seriously by some spectators including US diplomats in Islamabad. It was astounding to many observers that the 1973 Constitution introduced by Bhutto was still in force even after Bhutto had been removed from power. This was a new experience for Pakistan as the military still held to the legal structure on one hand and ousted the Politicians on the other.

Martial law, in spite of being unacceptable to many people yet seemed to have brought solace to public transport and taxi drivers.  Prior to the Martial law, public demonstrations had become a routine practice halting daily activities. The masses trusted Zia’s promise of holding free and fair elections and his reassurance of only suspending the 1973 Constitution without abrogating it. Hence Zia was successful in portraying himself to the masses as a true, honest and genuine leader.

Why Bhutto appointed Zia as the Army Chief still remains a mystery and a much debated topic by political observers. One theory suggests that Zia due to his affinity with Jamait-i-Islami was selected by Bhutto. It was speculated that Mulana Tufail the head of this Organization was Zia’s maternal uncle. Bhutto wanted to contain Jamait-i- Islami because it was perceived a threat by every ruling party since the days of Ayub Khan.

Conversely another theory implies the role of United States in setting up a coup in Pakistan owing to Bhutto’s estranged relations with the US government.  The reason for this estranged relation was certainly due to Bhutto’s pursuance of the atomic bomb. On one fine April morning Bhutto in response to the nationwide agitation against 1977 election rigging went to Raja Bazar a famous market in Rawalpindi. Bhutto stood on his jeep and waved a letter to the audience which according to him was a clear proof of the US involvement in the agitation against him.

It is commonly believed that some reports confirmed that Zia ul Haq and the US ambassador were already in contact prior to the military intervention. Benazir Bhutto referred to the intelligence report confirming recurrent meeting between the US diplomats and members of PNA. These meetings were deemed to be a catalyst for the countrywide “wheel jam” agitation staged by PNA against Bhutto. There once came an intelligence report based on a taped conversation between two diplomats in Islamabad saying the party’s over!  He’s gone’.  Bhutto while addressing the National Assembly responded “Gentlemen the party is not over.” In the middle of all this chaos the street demonstrators enchanted that “Bhutto is a Hindu Bhutto is a Jew” further adding to his troubles.

Bhutto wanted to have an Army Chief subservient to the Prime Minister thus Zia seemed to be the right man.  With the execution of Bhutto Zia became more insistent in subduing “Constitutionalism and federalism” which are considered two crucial posts for stability. The Zia regime broke the rules of federation by appointing military personnel in the federating units.  Regime security was of paramount importance to Zia ul Haq therefore he made efforts to legitimize his military rule. From 1977-79 the Zia regime took measures to destabilize PPP and therefore it sought the cooperation of PNA. From 79-83 the regime rather grew oppressive and separated itself from political parties focusing on achieving its corporate interests. In 1984 Zia ul Haq announced his decision of staying in the office of the President even after the National Elections. Prior to the elections a referendum was held to supply Zia legitimacy and the popular mandate that he longed for. Return to normalcy became a much awaited and common aspiration consequently some officers in the military also wished the same.

The regime had to deal with enormous pressure from the Movement of Restoration of Democracy MRD and the US government. Thus it was left with the option of conducting a party less elections in 1985. The opposition parties labeled this election as “dumb and deaf” and still boycotted it.  As their demands for a party based elections and the restoration of 1973 Constitution were rejected.  Mohmmad Khan Junego a Sindhi Landlord became the Prime Minister of Pakistan after the party less elections in 1985. Some political observers have highlighted two reasons for Junego being appointed as Prime Minister. First he had a good relation with Pir Pagaro and the second reason was that he was from Sindh.

 Junego wanted to act independently hence he removed Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan and appointed Zain Noorani as the new State Minister for Foreign Affairs. A letter was issued to the Foreign Ministry advising them not to send any foreign office file to the President House. Junejo’s demand for an investigation into the Ojhiri Camp incident proved to be a sore point with Zia ul Haq.  The Prime Minister wanted to resolve the Afghan issue rapidly so he could focus better on domestic issues. His decision of signing the Geneva Accord against the will of General Zia is viewed as a major factor in his removal from the office of the Prime Minister. Zia Ul Haq on 29th May 1988 sacked Junejo’s government under article 58(2) of the amended 1973 Constitution.

On August 17th 1988 Zia died on returning from a short visit to Bahawalpur the C-130 carrying him suddenly exploded in the air soon after the take-off. U.S Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold L Raphael and the ex –Chief of inter- services intelligence ISI General Akhtar Abdul Rehman were also among the dead.  Zia’s death still remains a mystery the General only traveled to Bhawalpur to witness the American manufactured M1 Battle tank. Unexpectedly M1 tank failed to hit its target not even a single time. An article carried in the “Times of India” revealed that the eyewitnesses saw the plane staggering violently as if the pilot had lost control before it finally exploded.

Zia’s unfulfilled promise of holding free and fair elections and his pursuit of making Pakistan a theocratic authoritarian state besides various other reasons make him a controversial figure. Some political observers consider General Zia ul Haq responsible for enfeebling the State institutions, for introducing extremism, intolerance and Kalashnikovs in the society. 

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