In the aftermath of the tragic murder of Benazir Bhutto, I, like no doubt countless others, have been spending considerable time trying to learn more about Pakistan, and how exactly the country has fallen to its present desperate lows. Of course, the more you read about Pakistan the more you realize it hasn’t really “fallen” at all; it’s always pretty much been a mess.
An interesting and now largely forgotten quirk of Pakistani history—that brings us back to the subject matter of this blog—is the fact that for its first eight and-a-half years of independence Pakistan was actually a constitutional monarchy. When Pakistan became a sovereign nation in 1947, separating from the British Indian Empire, King George VI remained as head of state, as did his daughter Elizabeth II, who was styled “Queen of Pakistan” (among many other titles) upon her coronation.
In a recent blog post, The Commonwealth Monarchist makes the case that Pakistan “would be more stable under a Crown” and should have thought twice about ditching the Queen. He offers the following cynical summary of the country’s post-monarchical history:
In March 1956, the monarchy was abolished and a republic proclaimed. Two years later, a military coup overthrew the president. Military rule remained in place until 1971, but was again in force from 1978-88 and, under Gen. Musharraf, from 2001 until the present. That means that, out of 52 years as a republic, 30 – over half – have been under military rule. The longest-serving civilian president, F. I. Chaudhry of the PPP – Bhutto’s party – lasted only five years in the office before being replaced by military rule.
All of this is true, but the problem is the way the author sees correlation as causation. Pakistan’s constitutional regime did breakdown after the monarchy was abolished, but this had little to do with the form of government the country was taking at the time, and instead had everything to do with political trends that had already emerged during the monarchy period.
Indeed, as far as the republic-versus-monarchy debate goes, Pakistan is actually quite a fascinating case study because it so clearly demonstrates the complete and utter non-correlation between constitutional monarchy, democracy, and political stability.
The Kingdom of Pakistan
Pakistan became an independent country in 1947, after the British government controversially agreed to split their former Indian Empire into two sovereign nations, one Hindu (India proper) one Muslim (Pakistan). Constitutionally, both new countries became Commonwealth “dominions” in the style of Canada or Australia, that is to say parliamentary democracies with the British monarch as head of state, represented by a locally-appointed Governor General.
Pakistan’s first post-independence Governor General was Muhammed Ali Jinnah, a enormously important man who had served as the leading advocate of Muslim self-determination within British India. Revered in his own time as the “father of Pakistan,” he remains a symbolic hero figure to this day, and his 1947 appointment as governor general marked the closing cap of a long political career. A man of considerable ego, Jinnah insisted upon becoming Governor General rather than Prime Minister (as his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru had done) as only the highest office in the land would satisfy his ambition.
In many respects Pakistan simply had a bad start. Compared to India, which generally retained all of the Raj’s best and brightest, Pakistan’s ruling class talent pool was small and shallow, and the new country’s organs of government were weak and underdeveloped. Lacking a strong civil society, the elite consensus at the time believed that more than anything else, the Dominion of Pakistan would require strong executive leadership in order to survive its first shaky years of independence. Governor General Jinnah was an authoritarian character who during his career in colonial politics had greatly entrenched himself as sole leader of the Muslim peoples. Upon independence, he thus believed, and was encouraged by his followers, that he had a right to fully exploit the powers of his new position to continue his tradition of leadership.
Jinnah thus spent his time in office governing more as an executive president than a viceroy. Or perhaps more as a dictator than either, as he actively meddled in the legislative process (making himself speaker of parliament), bossed around cabinet (which he always chaired), fired premiers of state governments that passed laws which displeased him, and built up a personality cult that fostered blind deference for his decrees.
In 1948, a mere year after taking office, Ali Jinnah died and his subservient prime minister Mohammad Ayub Khan appointed Khwaja Nazimuddin, the premier of East Pakistan, as the new Governor General. Unlike Jinnah, Nazimuddin was happy to just be a figurehead, and allowed Prime Minister Khan to exercise all real power without much meddling.
There was a window of opportunity that Pakistan would now evolve into a proper parliamentary democracy, but it didn’t last long. Prime Minister Khan was shot on October 16, 1951 and Governor General Nazimuddin was in turn promoted (demoted?) by Cabinet to replace him as PM. The national finance minister, Ghulam Mohammad, was appointed as the new Governor General. This was basically a step backwards to the old status quo. Nazimuddin was a weak personality, as mentioned, but Ghulam Mohammad was an authoritarian in the model of Jinnah. Distrustful of parliamentary democracy, he thus sought to re-exert the Crown’s executive power.
In those days, the big hot-button issue in Pakistan was the creation of a new constitution to replace the cobbled-together mess of British acts and decrees that the country was currently governed by. Much of the ensuing debate centered around the issue of federalism—remember that at the time Pakistan was still divided into an “east” and “west” with India in-between. The easterners, who were in the majority and overwhelmingly Bengali in ethnicity, wanted, rather logically, to have a government that would enshrine their rights to a majority of seats in the parliament, rather than merely give them equal status, or worse, keep them in the minority as they were at present.
In 1953 the parliament (which doubled as a constitutional assembly) recommended a model of government that would do just that, but Governor General Mohammad decided to veto the decision, dissolving the legislature. A westerner from the Punjab tribe, like many politicians in his clan he was very defensive about retaining the political dominance of his people. He proceeded to fire Prime Minister Nazimuddin a few weeks later for no real reason other than he thought he was bad at his job, and installed Mohammad Ali Bogra, Pakistan’s larglely unknown Ambassador to the United States, in his place. Nazimuddin actually appealed his firing to Queen Elizabeth, who ignored him, with her handlers quoting the common mantra that “Buckingham Palace will not meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations”—an argument that made little sense considering that Elizabeth was supposedly “Queen of Pakistan” now, and thus capable of acting independently from her role as Queen of England.
The legislature met for another constitutional assembly in 1954, and they made more or less the same recommendations as they had last time, as well as additionally suggesting that perhaps the Governor General’s office should have a few less powers. Now convinced that the sinister Bengalis were trying to take over the country, Governor General Mohammad once again dissolved the assembly, this time declaring a state of emergency as well. In the words of Tariq Ali, for the next few months Pakistan was “ruled by a semi-insane Governor General” who crushed press freedom and gave the army a free hand to round up dissidents.
In 1955 a new constitution was finally approved. As part of this process, the monarchy was abolished for largely symbolic reasons; there was no desire to have a white, protestant woman as head of what was supposed to be an explicitly Muslim state. Politically, however, the new President of Pakistan occupied an office that was largely the same as that of the Governor General. The movement to weaken the executive had faltered, and the new presidency would retain all the same “reserve powers” of dissolution, appointment, and veto usually associated with a constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, Pakistan had already grown used to authoritarian Governor Generals exploiting their constitutional powers to the full extent, so it was unsurprising that the man who became the first President of Pakistan following Mohammad’s 1956 resignation, General Iskander Mirza, chose to conduct himself in a similarly aggressive manner.
President Mirza continued to rule under a state of emergency, till 1958, when he was quietly deposed by General Mohammad Ayub Khan, his ambitious defense minister. As President, Khan eventually ditched the 1956 constitution altogether and wrote his own, formally entrenching an authrotarian system of “managed democracy” that would last until his resignation in 1969, at which point the country descended further into internal breakdown and civil war.
Does the system even matter?
Pakistan has been an effective dictatorship, or failed state, for virtually all of its 60 troubled years as an independent nation. The fact that this was obviously the case even during the 1947-1956 period when the country was a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown seems to suggest some inherent flaws in the monarchist argument that constitutional monarchy breeds greater political stability and democracy than alternative systems.
So did the monarchical system of government fail Pakistan? Or did Pakistan fail the monarchy? Neither, I believe. The model of government that Pakistan used is largely irrelevant to our understanding of why Pakistan went through what it did in the 1950’s, or why it is going through the events of the present, for that matter.
Jinnah and Mohammad can be easily criticized as just being bad governor generals, and a monarchist might argue (as many Brits did at the time) that their actions in office simply made a farce of the Westminster principles that their positions are supposed to respect and honor. What their regins ultimately demonstrate, however, is that a governor general (or monarch) is only as politically useful as he or she choses to be. An office of government is not in itself benign; it can only be begin if the individual who occupies it believes in the value of being so.
Jinnah and Mohammad were men with grand ambitions and authoritarian personalities who inherited a brand-new country without any sort of democratic traditions. That they helped bring their countries down the road to dictatorship is thus more an indictment of their own political priorities, style of leadership, and lack faith in the parliamentary process than any sort of grander thesis about monarchies or republics. As a counter-example, we need look no farther than next-door India, a country that went through virtually the same constitutional evolution as Pakistan—briefly a monarchy, then a republic—yet has enjoyed a nearly unbroken record of liberal democratic government since 1947. The difference was that India’s governor generals (and presidents) were willing to act as subservient figureheads, and its prime ministers were content to govern through the proper parliamentary process. Had India been led by a different caliber of men in those first shaky years, things could have turned out much different.
Wiser people than me continue to debate whether or not Pakistan was doomed from the get-go, and whether Jinnah’s dream of a multi-ethnic, secular Muslim state was ever really feasible. Certainly dictatorship arises more often than not from circumstances of social unrest and political tension—which invariably breed demands for “strong leaders” to fix everything—and such has been the status quo in Pakistan more often than not.
We can pray that Canada (or Australia or Britain or wherever) never collapses into a state of ruin and turmoil, and that our populace and politicians never begin to cry for dictatorship. But if they ever do, you can be sure that the Crown will not save us from ourselves.