Islamic Republic of Pakistan

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Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Type of Government

Pakistan is a parliamentary republic with a dual executive office consisting of a president, who serves as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, and a prime minister, who serves as head of government. The Majlis-e-shoora (Council of Advisors) has two houses, the Senate and the National Assembly. The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the Federal Islamic Court, a special court that hears cases involving Islamic law. The Pakistani state is Islamic by constitution and grants special status to Islamic law at all levels of government.


Pakistan is a South Asian country bordered by India on the east, Afghanistan and Iran on the west, and China on the northeast. Its southern coast is washed by the Arabian Sea. Before 1947, Pakistan and India were part of what is often called the Indian subcontinent. When the British partitioned the region, Pakistan consisted of two regions divided geographically by India. In 1971 the eastern region of Pakistan, after a war of independence, became Bangladesh.

Pakistan’s history diverges from that of its neighbor, India, in the mid-twentieth century, during the movement for independence from Britain. Islam, which arrived in the subcontinent in the eighth century, was the religion of the Mughal Empire, the dominant force in the region from the sixteenth century until the British gained control in the 1850s. However, the majority of India was Hindu, as was the leadership of the independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948). While many Muslims participated in Ghandi’s strategy of non-violent protests against British authority from 1920 until the independence movement’s ultimate victory in 1947, Muslim leaders feared that they would be an ignored minority in a Hindu-dominated independent state of India.

In 1940 the Muslim League, under the leadership of Muhammed Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), endorsed a two-nation independence policy, insisting that any resolution of the conflict with the British involve a partition of India, with separate countries for Hindus and Muslims. Initially, the British were dubious about the Muslim League’s demands, considering them a negotiation ploy aimed at obtaining a better power-sharing arrangement within a united India. However, Muslim support for the partition of India became evident on Direct Action Day, August 16, 1946, when what was planned as a non-violent protest by the Muslim League degenerated into riots in Calcutta that claimed more than four thousand lives.

Afterward, the intense acrimony between the Hindu and Muslim factions led to a partition plan with borders imposed by the British to break the impasse. On August 14, 1947, the Dominion of Pakistan was formed and immediately became the largest Muslim country in the world. There was tremendous upheaval as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of these new borders uprooted themselves to immigrate to Pakistan and India, respectively. Jinnah became Pakistan’s first governor general.

A centuries-long history of military insurgency has led to several reformulations of the government since then, including constitutional revisions in 2003. It has been the Islamic Republic of Pakistan since 1956.

Government Structure

Pakistan is divided into four provinces, a federally administered tribal territory, and a capital territory. It has a parliamentary government that acknowledges the primacy of Islamic law. However, since independence in 1947, the government has been interrupted by periods of military control. Parliamentary government was restored in 2001.

The president is required by the constitution to be Muslim and functions as the head of state and commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces. A special electoral college, made up of members from the parliament and the provincial assemblies, elects the president for a maximum of two terms of five years each. The president retains certain constitutional powers, including the ability to dissolve the National Assembly in the event of governmental deadlock. The parliament can likewise call for the president’s impeachment with a two-thirds vote.

The prime minister serves as the head of government and usually represents the majority party in the National Assembly. The prime minister advises parliament on matters of state and the agenda of the executive branch. He also appoints the ministers of the federal cabinet, who head the executive departments and advise the prime minister on policy issues. When the government was restructured in 1994, thirty-three executive departments were established.

The Council of Advisors, or parliament, consists of an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house, the National Assembly. Either house can originate and approve legislation, but all budget bills start in the National Assembly. The president can block legislation from either house unless both houses override the president with a majority vote.

The National Assembly consists of 342 members, of whom 272 are elected by direct vote from the four provinces. In addition, sixty seats are reserved for women and ten seats are reserved for representatives of religious minorities. The special seats are filled by a proportional representation system. Members serve for five-year terms unless the president dissolves the house before regularly scheduled elections.

The one hundred senators are elected directly by the provincial assemblies. Some Senate seats are reserved for women, representatives of religious minorities, and representatives of Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas. Senators are elected for six-years terms, with half of the membership reelected every three years. Unlike the National Assembly, the Senate cannot be dissolved by the president.

In the judicial branch, the Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president and may remain in office until the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five. The Federal Shariat Court, which specializes in Islamic law, is headed by a presidentially appointed chief justice and seven justices, three of whom must be Islamic scholars, known as ulema. The Shariat Court has both federal and provincial jurisdiction and is charged with determining whether any legislative proposal violates Islamic law.

The judicial branch also contains the office of wafaqi mohtasib (ombudsman), an official whose task is to ensure accountability of the federal government. The mohtasib can award damages to persons who suffer as a result of failed administration. The president appoints the mohtasib for a four-year term.

Political Parties and Factions

Pakistan has multiple political parties. Throughout the nation’s history, some of the parties have joined military-led coalitions to control the central government.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) is a pro-military party formed in 2000–2001. It supports President Pervez Musharraf (1943–), who won election 2002 after taking power by military coup. The PML-Q is a moderately conservative party focused on economic and administrative reform and the expansion of federal powers.

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is a coalition party composed of several of Pakistan’s most powerful religious organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest religious party. The MMA, which has majority support in the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, reorganized the provincial governments to conform to strict Islamic law. The MMA enjoys a high level of grassroots support across the country but has been criticized for its support of radical and militant Islamic factions.

The People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) was founded in 1967 as a democratic opposition to military control of the central government. The PPP advocated a more egalitarian democracy and a peaceful transition toward socialist governance. Its leader, Benazir Bhutto (1953–), became Pakistan’s first female prime minister; she was forced into exile in Dubai following allegations of corruption. The PPP has since redefined itself as the People’s Party of Pakistan Parliamentarians (PPPP).

The Grand National Alliance (GNA) is a coalition of major regional political parties. Organized in 2002, the GNA has gained significant influence in regional governments and has taken a sufficient number of seats in parliament to affect key votes. The GNA supports the PML-Q government and the military administration of Musharraf.

Since independence, the government has limited the activities of certain parties whose members oppose the existing formulation of Pakistan or its status as an Islamic state. For example, the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and the National Democratic Party (NDP) have both been banned or restricted since the 1947 constitution.

Major Events

Pakistan has unresolved conflicts with India concerning national borders. At the time of the partition, the territories of Jammu and Kashmir, led by the Maharaja Hari Singh (1895–1961), opted to remain neutral territory. The Pakistani government believed that it should control Kashmir because a majority of the population was Muslim. In 1948 the Pakistani military invaded Kashmir, which led to a retaliatory troop deployment by India. The First Indo-Pakistani War ended with a cease-fire, and Kashmir was divided between the two countries (India gained control of about 54 percent of the territory).

In 1965 minor skirmishes erupted near the borders of Kashmir and escalated into full military engagement. Pakistan was unable to win additional territory in what is called the Second Indo-Pakistani War. The conflict ended after two months, with more than six thousand casualties reported for both sides. The United Nations mandated a cease-fire, and leaders from both nations met in the Soviet Union to negotiate a settlement.

The Third Indo-Pakistani War is also called the Bangladesh Independence War. When Pakistan was created in 1947, its territory was divided geographically by India. In 1971 the Pakistani military initiated martial law to combat a growing independence movement in the eastern portion of the country. India sent troops to support the independence movement, which led to further military escalation. The conflict lasted fourteen days and resulted in more than eleven thousand casualties on both sides. In the aftermath, the eastern portion of Pakistan successfully seceded and became the independent nation of Bangladesh. In this conflict, India had achieved a clear victory; it captured more than ninety thousand prisoners. Animosity and distrust did not end, however.

Pakistan began developing nuclear weapons in 1972 under the direction of energy minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979), who would later serve as president and prime minister. (He was the father of Benazir Bhutto.) Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Pakistani government purchased supplies and materials through still-unknown channels and worked on developing a weapons program. In 1988 it announced that after successfully conducting five nuclear tests, it was in possession of sufficient nuclear material to launch a military attack.

In 1999 India and Pakistan fought a three-month conflict in the Kargil region of Kashmir. The war began when Kashmiri guerrillas crossed the cease-fire line and occupied parts of India. The Indian government repelled the invasion force and might have pressed its advantage with a retaliatory invasion of Pakistan if the United Nations had not intervened. Pakistan later refused to accept any responsibility for the occupation, claiming the incident was entirely caused by Kashmiri freedom fighters.

The conflict between India and Pakistan has led to continued instability within the Pakistani government. Following the Kargil War, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (1949–) attempted to dismiss Musharraf, who was the army’s chief of staff. Musharraf responded by staging a military coup, which led to a period of military rule. Musharraf declared a national state of emergency and suspended the constitution until it could be amended. He then declared himself chief executive of the country for the transition period.

In 2001 Musharraf declared himself president, though the Supreme Court directed him to hold elections by 2002. When elections were held in October 2002, he retained the presidency with the aid of the PML-Q’s majority in parliament. Fierce political debates continued for the following year, as the administration and opposition leaders debated constitutional restructuring. Amendment 17 of the document they accepted formally legalized Musharraf’s military coup and his subsequent leadership. It also allowed him to run for re-election. Musharraf originally agreed to step down as the army’s chief of staff in exchange for parliamentary support, but in 2004 he announced that he would not relinquish his military post until the country had achieved greater stability.

Twenty-First Century

Though Pakistan has restored its constitution, the country still faces instability, largely arising from continued conflict between extremist political and religious factions. Diplomatic meetings with India have temporarily stabilized the dispute over Kashmir; however, militants on both sides continue to call for military action to decide ownership of disputed territories. Pakistan also faces high levels of poverty and rapid depletion of its natural resources.

Since 2001 Pakistan has supported the U.S. “war on terror,” despite widespread dissent from some political and religious groups. At the same time, however, terrorists from Afghanistan have been crossing the border into parts of Pakistan and using its mountainous areas as hideouts. Some analysts believe the government will not be able to keep the terrorist groups out; others believe the Pakistanis are actively harboring terrorist cells.

Pakistan is one of three member countries of the United Nations that have not ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the other two are India and Israel. Pakistan maintains that it will use its nuclear arsenal against India if it is threatened by a significant invasion force. According to some estimates, the Pakistani nuclear program may have developed between twenty and fifty nuclear warheads.

Talbot, Ian. Pakistan: A Modern History. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Cloughley, Brian. A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections. 3rd. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Ahmed, Akbar S. Resistance and Control in Pakistan. Rev. ed. London: Routledge Press, 2004.

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Islamic Republic of Pakistan

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