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Pakistan’s Dysfunctional Institutions Portend Long Term Instability

Institutions mark efficiency of states stability a sum total of security, governance and delivery of services to the people at large Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the Bhutanese like to call it.

The more common perception of effectiveness of state functioning is the Gross Domestic Product or GDP.

A balance between institutions and independence in decision making is an essential feature of a functional democracy.

If these be some of the markers that we set for ourselves Pakistan may already be failing the test as the saying goes in Pakistan the Army has a State and not the other way round.

Never the less some of the institutions in the country have played an effective role in containing institutional anarchy sporadically thus raising some hopes, but at this point of time it appears that Pakistan’s institutions have reached another nadir.

Here is a review of some recent events in relation to some of the key institutions in Pakistan than portends long term instability.

The Judiciary

The judiciary is an important state institution that can intervene on matters of high polity in particular apart from delivery of justice to the people at large.

The controversy over two significant leaks implicating former Chief Justice Saqib Nissar of having worked to issue partial judgements against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam on the instructions of the Army, there is disquiet in the judiciary as an institution.

While Mr Nisar rubbished allegations levelled against him by former top judge of Gilgit-Baltistan, Rana Shamim, regarding a collusion to deny bails to Nawaz and Maryam before general elections 2018 is the first incident while, leaked audio tapes followed.

The leaked audio clips have been verified forensically by a US firm Garrett Discovery. Former chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar and an unidentified man conversing of PML-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz's trial prior to the 2018 elections is quoted to have said in the tapes: "Let me be a little blunt about it. Unfortunately, here it is the institutions that dictate judgements. In this case, we will have to punish Mian sahab (Nawaz Sharif). [I] have been told 'we have to bring Khan sahab (Imran Khan) [into power].'" Mr Nisar has denied that he had such a conversation.

The Bar Council of Pakistan a key stakeholder has raised the red flag over the reports even though these have yet to be proved as being credible.

Which way the wind blows remains to be seen particularly with direct allegations in the Nissar case that he was following instructions from the Establishment, the military may not like to stir the plot at this stage.

Political Parties

On the political front the two oldest parties – Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML N) are essentially family run enterprises ruined by corruption and nepotism but there are hardly any viable alternatives.

The ruling party Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) has lost much of the credibility seen as a party that has been propped up by the Army to keep the PML N out of reckoning in the 2018 National and Provincial Assembly elections.

The Saqib Nisar tapes if proved to be genuine expose how the PTI managed to come to power much to the detriment of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Even if these are not credible that the Army has been calling the shots in the Imran Khan government or otherwise is well known in Pakistan and accepted as such.

Pakistan judiciary has stood up against the Army in the past with Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry having resented the interference of then President and Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf who had to leave office due to persistent support to then Chief Justice, but now it appears that things have turned turtle so to say and the Saqib Nisar case is a new low in the judicial history of Pakistan. This has also given a lease of life to the ousted Prime Minister Mr Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam.

The Parliament

Under the bicameral system Pakistan has the National Assembly and the Senate at the apex. As the Imran Khan government has a very narrow majority and is dependent on the allies for survival, passage of bills in the parliament can be manipulated and can be controlled through external intervention that is the Army.

This was evident when opposition despite much fanfare could not block the tranche of bills in the parliament including the one related to Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in a joint sitting in November. Discreet calls made to allies of the ruling Party who were not in favour of the bills ostensibly by the ISI ensured that these were passed. The very fact that a Joint Session was held implied that the ISI was propping the Bills but the opposition failed to read the writing on the wall.

The Military and Intelligence Establishment

While Pakistan Army is seen as a significant stakeholder in stability particularly given that the county is a nuclear weapons state, disruptions in the military and intelligence establishment have come to light.

The military and intelligence establishment’s dysfunctionality is evident with the Pakistan Army’s oversized role amongst the three services.

While there is a head of the three services, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff – he is only a nominally senior figure to the Army Chief.

The Army while emphasising on professionalism is indulging in blatant intervention in governance from political to the economy.

Grievances of businesses are aired as much in front of the Army Chief as the Prime Minister or the Finance Minister.

These diversions are weakening the Army’s professional role, one marker of which is repeated failures in counter insurgency operations, the victims being mostly junior officers and NCOs who have lost out due to lack of firm guidance from the top.

Economic Institutions

The economic institutions such as the State Bank of Pakistan are perhaps the weakest as the country has to go for repeated bailouts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In the most recent instance in November [2021] the IMF agreed to revival of a six-billion-dollar extended fund facility [EFF] programme to Pakistan after the two sides finally reached a staff-level agreement.

This will be the umpteenth time that Pakistan is receiving a bailout even as the Pakistan Rupee has crashed to an all time low in recent years of Rs 170 plus.

Impact of Institutional Misgovernance

Public Confidence in Government

It is not surprising that a consumer confidence survey conducted in November by Ipsos, a France based market research and consulting firm country, concluded that 87 per cent of Pakistanis felt that the nation was moving in the wrong direction — a sharp increase from 66pc participants who believed so in the September 2021 survey and the highest ever since August 2019.

Based on these reading, "the public sentiment about [the] overall direction of the country has hit its lowest ever," the survey report stated as per the Dawn. 64pc of the respondents, expected the economy to remain weak in the next six months and just 12pc were hopeful about the economy getting stronger.

Internal Crisis Management

The ability of the state institutions to manage crisis generated by fringe organisations which seem to have popular support is seen to be limited. The recent handling of the protests by Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) a radical Barelvi group which thrives on public support on issues such as blasphemy held the State to ransom in October November. The government made concessions to the demands of the TLP, removing the chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi's name from the Fourth Schedule — a list of proscribed individuals who are suspected of terrorism or sectarianism under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997 as per the Dawn News.

In turn the credibility of state institutions as the Punjab [Pakistan] Police was undermined with a reshuffle of the entire staff allegedly due to mishandling of the TTP agitation. The Police lost at least three officials due in managing the protests by the TLP and hundreds were injured.

While negotiation is an instrument for resolution of a political crisis, abject surrender of the State and undermining the Police has shown the government in poor light.


Pakistan’s dysfunctional institutions have been exposed with the oversized role of the Pakistan Army in managing and manipulating these including the higher judiciary.

Normally the higher judiciary in the country is seen as the lightning rod for upholding credentials of institutions in the country including Pakistan which has been beset with a number of challenges due to dominance of the Army.

The lack of strong institutions in Pakistan and its impact has been highlighted in a study by Wilson Center in 2017. The summary of the study states, “Ineffective institutions complicate efforts to develop and implement effective public policies. This means that Pakistan’s broader development challenges—which range from food, water, and energy insecurity to widespread public health epidemics and millions of out-of-school children—will remain in place, if not worsen”.

Not much has changed in the interim as a survey of incidents in the past three months summarised above shows.

Radical change in institutional functioning would require national and institutional leadership to take tough decisions to steer the overall direction of the State from the morass that it is in today towards effective order.

As this is unlikely to happen in Pakistan long term instability appears preordained for now.

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