Murders of Benazir Bhutto and Nawab Bugti Attest to Pakistan’s Crumbling Federalism


Ms Bhutto and Nawab Bugti’s assassination prolong detention of Akhter Mengal, military operation; disappearances of Sindhi and Baloch political activists and intimidation and harassment of political representatives of smaller provinces have raised many concerns on issue of political co-existence. Where an ethnic group is holding enormous control of civil-military power and employing unpopular policies against the underprivileged provinces by use of overt and covert force.

Internationally Pakistan lacks a soft political image, but internal situation is fragmented and disturbing. In early years Pakistan’s failure to establish a workable federal system resulted in breakup of the country in 1971. Once again Islamabad’s failure to realise the growing dissatisfaction in the provinces is gradually heading towards a disaster. The political system in Pakistan is on the verge of a collapse. The unpopular and widely rejected decisions and methods used by Islamabad against minority provinces have played a key role in deteriorating federal-provincial relations.

National minorities and powerless provinces are totally voiceless in the system. Ethnic anxiety is on the rise in many parts of the country. Constitutional guarantees have been set-aside by mere executive orders to favour and support a particular class and an ethnic group. President Pervez Musharraf made scores of promises including the undertaking of provincial harmony through major constitutional reforms in his first televised speech. But his eight years of autocratic rule and hostile policies towards national minority provinces has resulted in increase of centre-provincial rivalry. In the last eight years countless constitutional amendments and presidential ordinances have been introduced to secure one man rule. But there is hardly any achievement of that has strengthened the federation or people’s confidence on the state system.

Federalism as a political system has many sensitivities where authority, sovereignty and power are shared constitutionally between sub-units and a centre. The challenges to the stability of the system depend on institutions not in individuals. Increasingly federal government has grown beyond its constitutional bounds; national minorities have been systematically excluded from policy making and governance. The regime also took a number of controversial decisions unilaterally.

The Pakistan army was sent to Balochistan to suppress Baloch demands of political empowerment. Junta also failed to finalize the mandatory National Finance Commission Award to fairly distribute the financial resources among the federating units.

Central government in certain cases has the right to a lawfully increase its influence in provincial matters, like regulating businesses and industries, securing civil and political rights and for the provision of social services. But in Pakistan it has become a routine practice by the regime to undermine province’s authority, taking extra constitutional steps and disregard the sovereignty of the province and its citizens in pretext of so-called national security and maintaining law and order.

Contrary to the concept of federalism, citizen participation has been limited in Pakistan; they are systematically excluded from the state affairs. Political victimization, torture, disappearances; harassment is widely used to limit people’s participation in political affairs of the federation. However federalism allows and increases the opportunities for citizen participation in public decision-making; through deliberation and representation in both sub-unit and central bodies.

In a federation, provinces and groups feel confident and they are not subject to any humiliation due to their identity. But for political gains the present regime is used to disgrace national minorities through controlled media. A huge media campaign was launched against Baloch people during 2006. Underestimating the long-term effects, this short-term strategy to defame opponents and population of less populated province was quite successful creating division with in the citizens of federation. Overruling the fundamentals of the federation, all public related policies are controlled by the central authority. It’s not over-centralization which many politician claims, but its overall-centralization of state which has resulted in political disorder in the country. Geographical unity of a state is very much dependent on its ethical and political institutions.

In a multi-ethnic country government could only maintain and assert its legitimacy through political mainstreaming. Physical violence and use of force has further complicated and destabilized the relations between different groups rather then unifying them. Multinational federalism has been found to be the best political practice to limit national and ethnic conflicts. The need for true federalism is much needed in countries where there is political strife and conflict of interest among the ethnic groups.

Federalism has also been proved as a major source of promoting democracy and human rights. It also minimizes coercion, but unitary and authoritarian rule and policies increases the risk of conflict among the dissimilar population and groups. Some of the Asian countries have moved forward to achieve political stability through asymmetric federalism, but many countries are legging behind to gain desire political stability. After the fall of East Timor, the Indonesian government agreed granting substantial autonomy to the Aceh people in the 2005, in a bid to end long standing conflict in resource rich Aceh region.

Philippine also accelerated the process of federalization in 2005, to calm down the unease relation with ethnic and religious minorities. Top policy makers and champions of national security in Pakistan need to rethink about their policies to increase people’s participation in the system. Participatory democracy and true federalism is the way out of quagmire. They should realize that without a fair political system it’s impossible to govern and keep unified a multi-ethnic country like Pakistan.

The writer is a member of the Senate of Pakistan