[X] Close

Register for the Event

Fill out the form and we we'll get back to you.

Full Name:


Email Address:

Contact Number:


[X] Close

Membership Login

The members area is under development.
A UK-Based Think-Tank
Perspectives for a Better Tomorrow

RSS International News

Sign up for newsletter

Please enter your email address, to receive latest news & updates.


Contact FIRD

Name *


Email *

Telephone *



Who is Sovereign in Pakistan? Sovereignty and Representative Governance – Hasan Askari Rizvi

Who is Sovereign in Pakistan? Sovereignty and Representative Governance - Hasan Askari Rizvi

Sovereignty is an imprecise concept because its operationalization in the form of institutions and processes is a complex affair. It is easy to say that sovereignty belongs to the people or to God Almighty. They key issues are where would sovereignty be located in a state? How would you create institutions and processes for management of sovereignty? The location of sovereignty may vary from a state to state, depending on the nature of the political system and the constitution.

Democratic political system emphasizes representative government and the exercise of state sovereignty by people through their elected representatives.  This means that sovereignty is located in the elected legislature. The elected representatives maintain a close contact with the people in their constituencies who are viewed as the ultimate sovereign.   The parliament shares power and authority with other state institutions under the constitution and law of the country concerned.  However, being the representative of the people the parliament has precedence over other state institutions.

In Pakistan the theoretical formulation and location of sovereignty has caused controversies for two major reasons. First, at the operational level the supreme political power and authority has been used by different institutions. Second, there is a widespread tendency among the political class to view sovereignty as a textbook concept and it is often employed for advancing partisan political agendas.

The Sovereignty Debate: The Preambles of all regular constitutions of Pakistan (1956, 1962 and 1973) assign sovereignty all over the universe to God Almighty. The people exercise this authority as a sacred trust within the limits prescribed by Him. This exercise of power and authority is to be done through the chosen representatives.

The Preamble of the 1973 Constitution opens with the statement: “Whereas sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust; And whereas it is the will of the people of Pakistan to establish an order; Wherein the State shall exercise the powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people.”

This means that at the operational level, the authority and power of the state is located in the elected parliament, making it the salient institution as compared to the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary, although these institutions have their domains of authority under the constitution and law.

Historically speaking, sovereignty was located in the constituent assembly and national assembly during 1947-58. The two constituent assemblies were elected indirectly by the provincial assemblies. Civilian governments headed by different prime ministers managed the state affairs with the support of the two constituent assemblies. The political parties and leaders competed with one another to establish and sustain their control of the state power.

During the periods of four direct military rules (1958-1962, 1969-1971, 1977-1985, 1999-2002), the top brass of the military controlled the sovereign authority of the state because they abolished or suspended the constitution and ruled over the country without constitutional restraints. Their orders were law and the people generally accepted their commands.   Three military rulers, Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, civilianized military rule by coopting a section of the political elite, making constitutional and legal changes to provide a legal and constitutional cover to their continuation in power and holding of carefully managed elections.

Sovereignty returned to elected parliament during civilian elected rule in 1988-1999 and from 2008 onwards.  An elected civilian political order functioned in Pakistan, although it faced different pressure that adversely affected its performance.   During 1988-1999, the military exercised clout from the sidelines and influenced foreign policy and domestic politics. All four civilian governments during this period were dismissed by the president with the support of the army chief.

A new journey on road to democracy began after the February 2008 general elections. Democratic institutions and processes have encountered many challenges which we will discuss in the next section.

One key issue in Pakistan is how to determine that a law or executive action does not violate the teachings and principles of Islam.  Most religious leaders wanted this power to be assigned to a committee of religious scholars.  However, the constitutions have assigned this power to the parliament. Alternatively, the law or executive action can be challenged in the High Courts or the Supreme Court. The military government of General Zia-ul-Haq decided in 1979-1980 to establish a separate system of Islamic courts to woo orthodox and conservative Islamic leaders and parties. A  Federal Shariat Court was established for that purpose. The appeals against the judgment of the Federal Shariat Court can be made to the Shariat Bench of the Supreme Court.  A large number of legal experts view the Shariat court and the Shariat Bench as a parallel court system to the High Courts and the Supreme Court.

The Council of Islamic Ideology was first established under the 1962 for reviewing Pakistan’s existing legal system to make sure that it conformed to the principles and teachings of Islam.  The 1973 Constitution retained this institution with some changes.  However, the advisory from the Council of Islamic Ideology is not binding on the government or the parliament.

This means that Pakistan’s parliament is not sovereign by itself but sovereignty is located in it for the purpose of exercising it because the elected parliament is the representative of people. No other state institution has this status which needs to be respected by other state institutions.

A large number of people in Pakistan are extremely sensitive about sovereignty when it comes to interaction with India, the U.S. and other western countries. They describe the attacks of American drone aircraft in Pakistan’s tribal areas as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.    However, when Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups violate Pakistan’s sovereignty by launching armed attacks on state institutions, functionaries and citizens, they stay quiet.

If drone attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, the attack on the institutions and personnel of Pakistan state by militant groups is also a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Sovereignty has three dimensions.  First, no state should violate any state’s territory by any direct or indirect means except with the permission of the state concerned.  Second, a state must have a firm control over its territory and no organization should defy the state authority by any means, especially by taking up arms.   Third, a state territory should not be used against any other state. No armed and other groups can launch attacks or engage in political campaigning against a state from another state territory.  The drone attacks fall in the first category and the activities of the Taliban and other militant groups based in Pakistan’s tribal areas or in the mainland come under the rubric of 2nd and 3rd categories.

Challenges: The challenges to the primacy of the parliament as the seat of sovereignty and its representative character come from several sources.    The first challenge can be traced to the people and groups that wish to use the democratic procedures and elections as a means to implementing their peculiar political ideas that are not necessary democratic.  For them democracy has instrumental relevance and elections provide an established way to access power. Once political power is achieved, they can use the electoral legitimacy to turn Pakistan into a state based on their ideological Islamic hardline framework. They do not view Pakistan as a sovereign entity and question the primacy of the elected parliament as the repository of sovereignty.

The second major threat is posed by non-elected state institutions like the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary.  The bureaucracy has often supported or worked with other non-elected institutions to expand its authority over the elected institutions and the people. The military has traditionally undermined the prospects of representative governance through its direct and indirect rule. The military often attempts to restructure the political system to its satisfaction.  The military has been out of power since 2008 but it continues to be a powerful political player from the sideline.

The judiciary was supportive of the military’s expanded role in the past. It endorsed the direct assumption of power by the military on all four occasions.  Since the restoration of the present Chief Justice and other judges in 2009, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have engaged in a high pace judicial activism and have built pressure on the elected parliament and the elected federal government.  The comments of the judges, as published in the media, have political implications in the politically divided political context.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has publicly rejected the notion of primacy or superiority of the elected parliament, arguing that the Supreme Court has the power to make sure that all institutions of the state stay within the framework of the constitution This raises a fundamental question if the Supreme Court has unlimited power to reprimand every state institutions and functionary, restrained only by the conscience of the judges, its words become constitution and law. This implies that the judges exercise the sovereign authority of the state which negates the preamble of Pakistan’s constitution that stipulates the exercise of state authority and power by the representatives of people.

The superior judiciary has the power to interpret the constitution but while doing this it needs to acknowledge the privileged position of the parliament as given by the constitution.  The superior judiciary needs to examine if it is not entering the domain of the elected executive and elected parliament by its actions like fixation of sugar price (September 2009) or lifting price ceiling for samosa (July 2012) and transfer and posting of officials.  These developments have caused uncertainty about what the parliament can or cannot do, especially after one prime minister was convicted by the Supreme Court on contempt of court and sent home in June 2012.

The third major factor that adversely affects the primacy of the elected parliament is unrestrained competition among the political players.  Though all important political parties are in power either at the federal level or in provinces, the focus is on the PPP-led federal government.  The PPP and its allies are struggling for political survival and attempt to hold on to power by all possible means.  The opposition parties, especially the PMLN, are often engaged in a free-for-all effort to dislodge the federal government.  As the PMLN cannot replace the PPP-led federal government in the National Assembly, it has attempted to resort to street agitation to achieve this objective. It also hopes that the Supreme Court or the military will remove this government.

The Punjab Chief Minister (PMLN) has openly preached defiance of and street agitation against the federal government on electric power shortages. The open support to culture of violence is a dangerous development because, in the long run, street agitation and violence undermine democracy.

The fourth major threat is religious extremism, sectarianism and terrorism that can degenerate the political process and make the parliament irrelevant to political management.  Religious extremism is not confined to far and remote areas of Pakistan.  It is publicly practiced on the mainland. The killing of people by a frenzied mob on some religious account is not an unusual phenomenon in Pakistan. The religious minorities are targeted by extremist societal groups. Islamic sectarian conflict, especially the killings of Shias, is more common now.

The most unfortunate aspect of such extremist incidents is that the political and religious leaders shy away from publicly condemning the groups that take the responsibility for such acts.  They criticize violence and sectarianism only in general terms, arguing that Islam does not sanction such violence.  Religious and cultural intolerance and terrorism are anti-thesis of democracy.

The fifth major challenge is poor governance by the federal and provincial governments. The popular support for representative governance and primacy of the elected parliament is expected to decline if the election civilian political system does not deliver services and security to the people. The governments need to adopt policy-measures to reduce socio-economic pressures on the common people and assure them security of their life and property.  All governments have performed poorly, causing alienation among the common people.

Pakistan’s economy is in real trouble.  The opposition leaders talk of the troubled economy only to criticize the federal government. They have no concrete ideas to suggest solutions. They are also not prepared to adopt a joint strategy to cope with economic challenges. The Islamic parties and some of the mainstream political parties are talking of tough disposition towards the western countries which will isolate the federal government and make it impossible to salvage the economy.

Pakistan is currently facing deep rooted structural problems that can cause a total collapse of the political system or it may function only at the minimum level. All political parties and state institutions need to work together within a democratic constitutional framework to address them. If the current power struggle continues unabated neither the present democratic order nor an authoritarian or technocratic arrangement can salvage the situation.

The sixth major challenge to sovereign status of the state and the institutions that exercise sovereignty is linked to the communication and technology revolution.  The hard crust of the state is now penetrated by influences from outside of the territorial boundaries due to modern information technology, especially satellite television and radio, internet and other media technologies and cellular technology.

It is no longer possible for a state to completely isolate itself from the rest of the world. The communication system is so fast that the major developments are reported very quickly at the global level.  Further, no state can invoke its sovereign status to adopt any policies towards the people.  If internal violence and civil strife intensifies and persists over time, it has a tendency to become an international event.  Many issues like environment, sharing of river water and natural resources, human rights and treatment of minority groups draw attention far beyond the territorial boundaries of a state.

Concluding Observations: All states are sovereign but the exercise of sovereign rights in international politics depends on internal political cohesion and economic strength of a country.  Further, a country must be positively linked with the international system in order to assert its independent and sovereign status. Sovereignty is not protected by aggressive posture towards the outside world but by positive engagement with the rest of the world and peace at borders.

Pakistan’s sovereignty with reference to the rest of the world depends on its internal political strength, societal cohesion and, above all, its economic resilience. If Pakistan continues to face acute internal conflict and economic meltdown, it will find it difficult to protect its sovereignty in the international system and it will be extremely vulnerable to external influence, penetration and intervention.

In Pakistan’s domestic context, sovereignty lies with the elected parliament that works within the limits set out by the constitution and law.  If Pakistan becomes ungovernable over time and the state cannot assert its control over all of its territory, its internal sovereignty can run into serious problems.   Similarly, if non-government groups engage in armed conflict with the state or with one another, the state loses its credibility. In such a situation of internal strife, some groups start using a state territory for pursuing their ideological-political agenda beyond the territorial limits of the home-base state. These developments compromise the sovereign status of a state.

If the Pakistani state does not address these challenges, fails to create a semblance of order and stability within its territorial limits, and evokes voluntary loyalty based on representative governance that promote internal harmony and socio-economic justice, sloganeering cannot protect its sovereignty. Pakistan can become a non-functional state in which no state institution will be in a position to exercise supreme power and authority.



Hasan Askari Rizvi is Professor Emeritus, Punjab University, Lahore, and an Independent Political Consultant. He has taught at Columbia University, New York; School of Advance Internationa Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C., South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany, and Political Science Department, Punjab University, Lahore.

He holds M.A. and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and M.Phil. in Politics from the University of Leeds, UK.   He has extenisve published work to his credit that includes books, monographs, research articles in professional journals and Pakistan’s national newspapers and magazines.

Latest FIRD News & Events