The 1985 constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan provides for a federal parliamentary system which is democratic and Islamic, with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. The constitution was suspended by the military government after the coup of October 1999, and was partially restored in November 2002, following the parliamentary elections. The constitution was amended in December 2003, suspended in November 2007, restored in December 2007 and amended in April 2010.
Under the present constitution, the president (who must be a Muslim) is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of the members of both houses of parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) and of the four provincial assemblies. The president cannot be elected for more than two consecutive terms.
Until April 1997, the president had certain discretionary powers including the power to dissolve the National Assembly. These powers were restored by the military government immediately before the elections of October 2002, but under the eighteenth amendment of April 2010 the president’s role once again became largely ceremonial – the president lost the power to dismiss the prime minister or the parliament. The president generally acts on the advice of the prime minister, and the president can be impeached and removed from office by a two-thirds majority of the parliament.
The bicameral federal legislature consists of the National Assembly, with five-year terms, and the Senate. From 2002 the National Assembly had 342 members, comprising 272 members directly elected by adult suffrage, plus 60 women and ten representatives of minorities (non-Muslims). These seats reserved for women and minorities’ representatives are allocated proportionally to all parties gaining more than 5% of the directly elected seats.
The Senate is a permanent legislative body with 100 members (previously 87) elected for six years with about half of them retiring every three years. Each of the four provinces elects 22 senators, including four women and four technocrats; the remaining 12 are elected from the Federal Capital Territory and the tribal areas.
Legal constitutional change requires the support of two-thirds of the total membership of the National Assembly and the Senate.
Executive power is vested in the prime minister and the federal cabinet. The prime minister, generally the leader of the party or coalition with the most number of seats, is selected by a vote of the National Assembly. The president appoints the federal cabinet upon the advice of the prime minister.
Pakistan’s four provinces enjoy considerable autonomy. Each has a governor, a Council of Ministers and a provincial assembly whose members are elected by universal adult suffrage. There are reserved seats for minorities.
The Supreme Court is both the final court of appeal and the constitutional court. The Federal Sharia Court was established in 1980 to scrutinise the laws and ensure that they accord with Islamic values. There is a high court in Islamabad and in each province. Appeals arising from civil and criminal cases in a state are heard by the state high court.
District and sessions courts both have jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases. Sessions courts are also trial courts for the most serious offences. There are magistrates’ courts in cities and towns throughout the country, and all but the most serious cases (for example where the death penalty applies) come before these courts in the first instance.
There are a number of other courts and tribunals specialising, for instance, in corruption cases, narcotics offences, financial crimes, consumer rights and industrial relations.
The state of Pakistan, meaning ‘land of the pure’, is relatively new. Only in the 1930s did the idea of a separate state for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent begin to be taken seriously by Indian politicians. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, took up the call for Pakistan in the late 1930s and 1940s, and is popularly remembered as the ‘Father of Pakistan’. He died in September 1948, little more than a year after the creation of the new state.
Pakistan originally consisted of two parts, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), separated by 1,600km of Indian territory. It was in 1971 that East Pakistan seceded and became a separate state.
In 1956, Pakistan became a federal republic. It has been under military rule for long periods. In 1958 martial law was declared and political parties were abolished.
Under a new constitution introduced in 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) became prime minister. In 1977 General Zia ul-Haq, leader of the army, declared martial law and arrested Bhutto. Bhutto was convicted of conspiring to murder a political opponent and was hanged in April 1979, despite international appeals. Zia promised elections within 90 days, but ruled without them until his death in August 1988.
Martial law and the ban on political parties was lifted in 1985, and Bhutto’s daughter Benazir returned home from exile to lead the PPP. Elections in November 1988 brought the PPP to power in coalition with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). The MQM soon left the coalition, and in August 1990 Bhutto was dismissed by the president and charged with corruption.
Fresh elections in 1993 brought Bhutto back to power with a small majority. In 1996 the president dissolved the National Assembly, bringing down the Bhutto government. In the elections of 1997 the Pakistan Muslim League won 134 seats in the National Assembly, to the PPP’s 18. Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League became prime minister.
In 1999 the army seized power, dismissing the government and arresting Sharif. Army Chief of Staff General Pervez Musharraf assumed leadership of a military government. Pending the restoration of democracy, Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth. A referendum held in April 2002 confirmed Musharraf’s position as president for a period of five years.
In October 2002 National Assembly elections were held, resulting in a hung parliament, and in 2004 Pakistan’s suspension from the Commonwealth was lifted.
In the presidential election of October 2007 Musharraf was unofficially proclaimed winner pending a key ruling by the Supreme Court regarding his eligibility to run for presidency while serving as chief of army staff. In November Musharraf declared a state of emergency effectively suspending the country’s constitution. In response, the Commonwealth suspended Pakistan for a second time, pending the restoration of democracy and rule of law.
The state of emergency was lifted in November 2007, and by the end of November both Sharif and Bhutto had registered to participate in the following parliamentary elections. In December, Bhutto was assassinated.
In February 2008, parliamentary elections were held. The PPP won the most seats, but not an overall majority. In May Pakistan was restored as a full member of the Commonwealth. In August, in the face of warnings of impeachment by parliament, Musharraf announced his resignation as president. In the ensuing presidential election, PPP co-chair Asif Ali Zardari was elected to succeed Musharraf.
In March 2009 the government requested a review of the Supreme Court judgement that had disqualified the Sharifs from holding elected office. In July 2009 the Supreme Court quashed Nawaz Sharif’s convictions of hijacking and terrorism (brought against him following the military coup of October 1999).