PILDAT statement on International Day of Democracy, September 15, 2023
Hybrid Regime or an Optical Illusion?
Pakistan must arrest downward spiral of Democracy!
September 14; Days before he relinquished the office of Prime Minister, Mr. Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif admitted that his government was a hybrid regime similar to those that have existed before in Pakistan’s troubled democratic history. As Pakistan’s 31st PM serving in the office from April 11, 2022 to August 13, 2023, he defended his admission by saying that his predecessor Mr. Imran Khan’s government was a hybrid regime of ‘historical proportions’ and had even an iota (30% or even 10%) of similar ‘support’ been given to any other government, Pakistan would have flourished.
Outgoing Prime Minister was right when he said that to ignore that military establishment had a direct or indirect role in Pakistan in the past 75 years would amount to a denial of history. The fundamental question facing Pakistan on this International Day of Democracy is whether acceptance of history also condemns the country to repeat it ad nauseam?
On November 23, 2022, the outgoing Chief of the Army Staff had publicly stated that since the Pakistan Army’s interference in politics for the past 70 years had been a leading cause of public criticism levelled against it, the institution after ‘great deliberation’ decided in February 2021 to ‘never interfere in any political matter.’  The statement was celebrated by optimists but was taken with a hefty grain of salt by pragmatists and cynics alike. If not the chronology of events alone since then, just a statement by the outgoing Prime Minister has firmly negated that claim.
Does classification as a ‘Hybrid Regime’ fully describe Pakistan’s democracy in 2023? Or is it just an optical illusion as scholars ponder over the need for better categorisation of autocratic regimes when autocracies increasingly emulate democratic features and democracies adopt authoritarian characteristics?
While global indices differ, Pakistan’s journey is described by Germany-based V-Dem (Varieties of Democracies) Institute as a Closed Autocracy (the least democratic category among the four categories) in the late 1970s that gradually improved to an Electoral Democracy (the second most democratic category) but has now stalled as an Electoral Autocracy (the second least democratic category). This ignominy is shared in 2023 with that of India, Nigeria, Russia, The Philippines, and Türkiye, home to 44% of the world population. The ‘Electoral Autocracy’ reportedly meant that the country has held elections in the past, but these elections have not been free and fair. The V-Dem report also noted that Pakistan has seen a decline in civil liberties and media freedom in recent years.
Pakistan is also consistently classified as a Hybrid Regime by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index  with a score of 4.25 out of 10 in 2022 indicating a decline from 4.35 in 2021. The report noted that Pakistan’s democratic institutions have been weakened by the military’s interference in politics, the decline of media freedom and the rise of religious extremism.
Pakistan is categorised as Partly Free in ‘Freedom in the World 2023’ by the US-based Freedom House.  Pakistan’s score has dropped from 37 to 36 out of 100, indicating a decline in its democratic status. The report highlighted military’s continued interference in political affairs, decline of media freedom, and the rise of religious extremism as the major concerns in the context of democracy.
Democratic decline instead of democratic consolidation marked the end of Pakistan’s 15th National Assembly that was dissolved on August 09, 2023 just before conclusion of its Constitutional term only to delay the General Election by an additional 30 days.
A delayed population census, its last-minute approval by the Council of Common Interests and the resultant announcement of fresh delimitation of constituencies by the Election Commission has endangered the prospects of timely General Election in line with the Constitution. Never before have political parties formed a ‘Coalition of the Unwilling’ to delay the process of a timely, free and fair General Election in Pakistan.
Within its 5-year term, Pakistan’s only popularly-elected national legislature did little to address, let alone reform, the fundamental weaknesses in Pakistan’s democratic system. Other than lone voices from inside the Parliament critical of legislative steps that have paved way for greater authoritarian control in the country, Parliament and political parties represented in it have allowed themselves to be used for diminishing instead of strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
Marking the beginning of the new Judicial year, the outgoing Chief Justice of Pakistan rightly said that the Supreme Court was ‘tested’ many times over the past year over Constitutional matters. How the Supreme Court responded to these ‘tests’ under his stewardship has left behind a sorry legacy of bitter divisions, critical allegations of partisanship and overriding of other constitutional entities outside of the Judiciary’s domain while acquiescing to undemocratic pressures.
“Empowering the Next Generation” as this year’s theme on International Day of Democracy highlights the role of young people in democratic dispensation. It also points to the responsibility placed on societies and cultures to impart better awareness of democracy in young people and meaningful engagement of youth in democratic processes.
Even though Youth make the largest chunk of Pakistan’s population and registered voters in 18 to 29 years cohort form the largest of all age cohorts, average 30% Youth voter turnout remains abysmally low in Pakistan displaying their apathy with the democratic process. The issue is further compounded as political parties rarely facilitate youth political association and participation in elections as candidates at various electoral levels. While other political parties need to seriously lift their game in encouraging youth participation in the electoral process as voters, party officials and candidates, it is a pity that a leading political party that enlivened young people’s political interests and associations has been made to go in disarray.
As the International Day of Democracy is marked globally on September 15, there is little comfort to be had from global decline in democracy. For the first time in more than two decades, point various indices, the world has more closed autocracies than liberal democracies. But what ails democracy can only be cured with more and not less democracy which is firmly based on rule of law and equal civil liberties. In the specific context of Pakistan, Elections need to be free and fair in all phases including pre-election, Election day and post-election; greater focus is needed to establish and sustain effective and financially-empowered Local Governments preferably through a constitutional amendment; non-interference in political affairs by those who do not have a political mandate so that elected legislatures and governments complete their constitutionally mandated terms to implement their Election Manifestoes and be accountable to the electorate.