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Dictatorship in Pakistan: A Study
of the Zia Era (1977-88)

Masood Akhtar Zahid


Authoritarianism has contributed immensely to
democratic disruptions and dysfunctional democracy in
Pakistan. Forces impervious to representative democracy
and dissent rallied round the most repressive military
regime of General Zia-ul-Haq which declared democracy
opposed to the psyche of the Pakistani people, repeatedly
chanted the mantra of a vaguely defined and distorted
concept of Islamic democracy, a veiled Islamic dictatorship,
and defeated all attempts at egalitarian change. Zia’s
vigorous pursuit of power and his carefully crafted and
tried typology of constitutional and political measures left
the country politically poorer and more polarized than it
ever was. The junta considered as kosher everything
including the misuse of religion, law and institutions such
as the army, judiciary and civil bureaucracy that would
ensure its longevity in power.


In this age of democracy there are a large number of
nations still struggling for their right of self-determination.
Pakistan is one such country which, having lived half of its

 Assistant Professor, National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam

University, Islamabad.

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Page 26

26 Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, Vol.XXXII, No.1 (2011)

nexus with the orthodox ulema whose knowledge and
interpretation of Islam and general worldview was
medieval and disharmonious to the views of Iqbal and
Jinnah who perceived modern democracy and the
parliament in perfect harmony with Islamic teachings,
and were opposed to dictatorship, whatever its form.

Eleven years of Zia were the wasted years as far as
democracy is concerned. Even his death did not remove
obstacles to democracy. Four elected governments fell
prematurely and in a row due to the anti-democratic
constitutional innovations of Zia, i.e., the Eighth
Amendment, which changed the country’s
parliamentary system into a presidential one except in
name. As elected governments would hold office during
the pleasure of the indirectly elected president, it made
mockery of democratic principles. In adversity,
politicians and people learnt, however, to appreciate the
merits of democracy and demerits of the army rule.
Moreover, political repression during the Martial Law
had a silver-lining to it. It galvanized support for
democracy and even reconciled the bitter political rivals,
the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the PPP, the two
largest political parties, which amended the
Constitution twice, first during the second Nawaz Sharif
government and secondly during the present PPP
government, and thereby restored the parliamentary
supremacy. Fortunately for Zia, his sudden death saved
him from popular backlash and an ignominious end.
But his military successor, General Musharraf, who
played havoc with the Judiciary and the Constitution,
had to quit after country-wide demonstrations of
lawyers and the Civil Society. Declared by the Supreme
Court as guilty of treason, he was allowed the safety of
self-exile by the present PPP government. Neither Zia’s
Islamicity nor Musharraf’s pseudo liberalism could earn
them significant popular support. They complemented

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Page 27

Dictatorship in Pakistan: A Study of the Zia Era 27

each other in seeking the death of democracy under the
cloak of Islamic piety and pseudo liberalism.

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