The Turbulent Tale of Elections in Pakistan: A Journey Marred by Military Interference and Democratic Struggles

Published: 11 February 2024
ইমরান চৌধুরী

By Imran Chowdhury, BEM (British Empire Medal) 

The writer is an internationally acclaimed geopolitical analyst.


Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has experienced a tumultuous journey in terms of elections and democratic governance. The history of elections in Pakistan, spanning from the 1950s to the present day, reflects a narrative riddled with instances of military interference, coups d’état, and prolonged military rule. Despite periodic transitions to civilian governance, the spectre of military intervention has haunted the democratic process, often leading to setbacks and challenges in the country’s quest for democratic consolidation.

The Early Years: 1950s–1960s

In the initial years following independence, Pakistan witnessed a nascent democracy struggling to find footing. The first general elections held in 1954 marked a significant milestone as the country embarked on its democratic journey. However, the fragile democratic institutions soon fell prey to military interference. In 1958, Pakistan experienced its first military coup, orchestrated by General Ayub Khan, effectively derailing the democratic process. The suspension of the constitution and the imposition of martial law plunged the nation into prolonged military rule.

Ayub Khan’s Era: 1960s–1970s

General Ayub Khan’s regime, characterised by authoritarianism and centralised control, perpetuated the military’s political dominance. Despite introducing a new constitution in 1962 and establishing a presidential system, democratic freedoms remained curtailed. The electoral process under Ayub’s regime was marred by allegations of rigging and manipulation to maintain the military’s grip on power. The imposition of martial law in 1969 further underscored the military’s stranglehold on governance, stifling any semblance of democratic dissent.

The darkest chapter in Pakistan’s history of military interference came with the tragic events surrounding the 1971 war and the subsequent secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. Despite the overwhelming victory of the Awami League in the 1970 general elections, the Pakistan Army, led by General Yahya Khan, refused to adhere to the people’s verdict, denying the Bengali population their rightful democratic representation. This egregious act of defiance ultimately led to a brutal crackdown and genocide perpetrated by the military, resulting in widespread atrocities and the loss of countless innocent lives. The failure of the Pakistani army to heed the aspirations of the people of East Pakistan and its brutal suppression of dissent underscored the grave consequences of military intervention and authoritarianism. Despite the tragic loss of half of Pakistan, the military establishment’s reluctance to learn from history continues to perpetuate cycles of political instability and democratic regression.

The Bhutto Years and Zia’s Coup: 1970s–1980s

The hanging spectre of military intervention continued to loom large over Pakistan’s political landscape, culminating in yet another coup in 1977. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, citing allegations of electoral fraud. Bhutto’s subsequent execution in 1979 further underscored the vulnerability of civilian leaders in the face of military authority. Zia’s regime ushered in a period of strict authoritarianism, marked by the suppression of political opposition and the imposition of martial law.

Return to Civilian Rule: 1980s–1990s

The death of General Zia in a plane crash in 1988 paved the way for a brief return to civilian governance. However, the transition was fraught with challenges as the military continued to wield significant influence behind the scenes. The 1990s witnessed a turbulent period of democratic experimentation characterised by alternating civilian and military rule spells. Despite restoring democratic institutions, the spectre of military intervention casts a shadow over the electoral process, undermining the prospects of genuine democratic consolidation.

The Musharraf Era: 1999–2008

The turn of the millennium brought about yet another chapter in Pakistan’s tumultuous political history, as General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Though initially hailed for its promises of economic reform and modernization, Musharraf’s regime soon became synonymous with authoritarianism and curbs on civil liberties. The military’s interference in the electoral process remained a contentious issue, with allegations of rigging and manipulation tarnishing the legitimacy of elections under Musharraf’s rule.

Challenges to Democratic Governance: 2008–Present

The transition to civilian rule in 2008 marked a glimmer of hope for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy as the country witnessed its first peaceful power transfer from one civilian government to another. However, the legacy of military interference casts a long shadow over the electoral process. Instances of alleged electoral fraud, political manipulation, and the role of the army establishment in shaping political outcomes have remained persistent challenges to democratic governance in Pakistan.


The darkest chapter in Pakistan’s history of military interference came with the tragic events surrounding the 1971 war and the subsequent secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. The refusal of the Pakistan Army to accept the democratic mandate of the Bengali population led to a brutal crackdown characterised by widespread atrocities, including rapes, massacres, and systematic targeting of Bengali Hindus and Muslims alike. This period marked a harrowing episode in human history, often described as a Bengali Holocaust, where countless innocent lives were lost and communities were decimated. Despite the egregious nature of these crimes and the international condemnation they elicited, the Pakistani military has shown little inclination to acknowledge its culpability or learn from the lessons of history. The failure to reckon with the atrocities committed in East Pakistan underscores a disturbing pattern of impunity and denial within the military establishment. As Pakistan continues its journey towards democratic consolidation, it is imperative to confront this dark legacy, ensuring accountability for past atrocities and fostering a culture of respect for human rights and democratic principles. Only through such introspection and reform can Pakistan hope to build a stable and inclusive political landscape that honours the aspirations of its diverse population.