Pakistan has a thriving and competitive multiparty system. However, the military exerts enormous influence over security and other issues. Islamist extremist violence targets religious minorities and those deemed impediments to Islamization. The military and intelligence services enjoy impunity for indiscriminate use of force. Authorities routinely curtail freedom of expression and association.
- Terrorist violence declined sharply, in large part due to a deescalation of an insurgency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
- Documents released in the Panama Papers leak raised questions about undisclosed assets held by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family. In November, following a series of antigovernment protests, the Supreme Court began hearings into the matter.
- In August, the National Assembly passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, which failed to include safeguards proposed by civil society and digital activists.
- In November, Sharif appointed a new chief of army staff in line with the constitution, indicating a consolidation of the civilian leadership’s role in national policymaking.
Pakistan remained relatively stable in 2016. Terrorist violence continued to decline, with the South Asia Terrorism Portal counting 1,803 terrorism-related fatalities during the year, about half the number it had documented in 2015. The cumulative effect of the army’s clearance of terrorist sanctuaries in Waziristan, and intelligence-led operations elsewhere in the country, was that radical Islamist violence no longer directly threatened democratic order.
In October, a series of antigovernment protests took place at which demonstrators expressed anger over documents released in the Panama Papers leak that raised questions about undisclosed assets held by Prime Minister Sharif’s family. Hundreds of demonstrators were detained following violent clashes with police, who employed tear gas and rubber bullets against the crowd. The Supreme Court opened hearings into corruption allegations against Sharif in November. Meanwhile, the army leadership was changed in line with the constitutional process and normal timeline, reflecting some consolidation of the civilian leadership’s role in national policymaking.
There was little progress on expanding civil liberties in 2016. Instead, a restrictive law governing the use of the internet was passed, and civil society organizations faced a continuing clampdown. An orchestrated campaign of harassment against Afghan refugees in in Pakistan, launched during the summer, precipitated a mass exodus to Afghanistan despite continuing insecurity there.
Pakistan consists of four provinces (Baluchistan, Punjab, Sindhi, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or KPK) and two federal territories (the FATA and the Islamabad Capital Territory). The parliament (Majlis-i-Shoora) is bicameral, with a 342-member National Assembly (NA) and a 104-member Senate. The constitution provides for a parliamentary system of government headed by a prime minister. An electoral college of the Senate, the NA, and the provincial assemblies elects the president for up to two five-year terms.
The Senate provides equal representation to all units of the federation. Each provincial assembly chooses 23 members, NA members representing the FATA elect 8, and 4 are chosen by the NA to represent the capital territory. Senators serve six-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every three years.
Members of the NA are elected for five years. Of the 342 seats, 272 are filled through direct elections in single-member districts, 60 are reserved for women, and 10 are reserved for non-Muslim minorities. The reserved seats are filled through a proportional representation system with closed party lists. The seats for women are allocated in proportion to the number of general seats a party gains in each of the provinces. The provincial assemblies employ a similar electoral system.
International and domestic election observers judged the 2013 elections favorably, citing active competition and campaigning. Voter turnout was 55 percent. The Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) overtook the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at the federal level, winning 126 of the directly elected seats in the NA. The PPP won 31 seats and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) took 28. Various smaller parties won less than 20 directly elected seats each. The PML-N formed a governing majority with the help of allied independents, and Sharif became prime minister.
The 18th constitutional amendment, adopted in 2010, significantly decentralized power from the federal level to the provinces. Under this arrangement, the provincial assemblies and governments have legislative and executive responsibilities, including in health, education, and local government. The 2013 provincial elections left a different party in government in each of the four provinces: PML-N in Punjab, PPP in Sindhi, a PTI-led coalition in KPK, and a National Party/PML-N coalition in Baluchistan.
Effort continued in 2016 to clear electoral business left over from the 2013 national and provincial elections, as election tribunals settled petitions relating to winning candidates accused of serious violations of electoral law, and several by-elections were held.
Pakistan has a thriving and competitive multiparty system. Opposition parties are generally free to operate both inside and outside the assemblies. The PPP, which had been defeated by the PML-N in 2013 federal elections, attempted to rebuild its national base in 2016, with former Pakistani president and party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari returning to Pakistan in December after spending a year and a half abroad. Meanwhile, his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP’s other co-chairman, staged a series of rallies during the year. In contrast, the strongest party in Karachi, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), faced a crackdown by authorities, who closed the party’s offices and arrested influential members after exiled party leader Altaf Hussain gave an August address that was highly critical of the army. Demonstrators allegedly affiliated with the party had subsequently launched a violent attack on two television stations. The MQM nevertheless continued operating during the year, participating in by-elections and the Sindh assembly.
There is a history of use of accountability mechanisms against national politicians, some of which has been selective and discriminatory. However, in 2016 the main focus on accountability for national politicians revolved around whether Prime Minister Sharif would be held to account on claims of concealing assets. In November, the Supreme Court appointed a one-judge commission to investigate the issue. Proceedings were still underway at the year end.
Terrorist violence fell further in 2016. There were no assassinations of prominent political figures and the army saw success in pushing radical Islamist groups out of the remainder of their main sanctuaries. Therefore, despite the periodic mass-casualty terrorist attacks that occur in all provinces, terrorist violence did not represent a direct threat to the democratic order.
Since 2002, a joint electorate system has allowed members of minorities to participate in the general vote while also being represented by reserved seats in the national and provincial assemblies through the party-list system. However, the participation of non-Muslims in the political system continues to be marginal. Political parties nominate members to legislative seats reserved for non-Muslim minorities, leaving non-Muslim voters with little say in selecting the parliamentarians who supposedly represent them. Ahmadis, members of a heterodox Muslim sect, face political discrimination and are registered on a separate voter roll.
The shifting terms of civil-military relations remained one of the most important underlying themes in national politics. The most concrete development in 2016 was the November appointment by the prime minister, in line with the constitution, of Qamar Javed Bajwa as the new chief of army staff. The high-profile incumbent, Raheel Sharif, retired in November without seeking an extension, thus breaking with the precedent set by previous army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who had maneuvered to stay on for a second term. In December, the intelligence chief was also replaced. Both moves indicated a consolidation of the civilian leadership’s role in national policymaking. However, the military continued to exert enormous influence in the conduct of relations with India and on internal security issues, such as the prioritization of areas for counterterrorism operations.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is Pakistan’s premier anticorruption body. In 2016 it continued to pursue dozens of “mega cases” involving investigation or prosecution of public representatives and commercial figures accused of serious corruption. Popular perception was that corruption remained endemic in public bodies.
Accessing official information remains difficult, and existing provisions for obtaining public records are ineffective. At the end of 2016, lawmakers had yet to approve a draft freedom of information bill, which would replace a 2002 ordinance on the topic and had drawn praise from local and international transparency advocates. Think tanks, civil society organizations, and universities all contribute to lively debate on many aspects of public policy. However, debate on certain aspects of national security policy, particularly the military’s alleged support for militant groups targeting Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir, have in effect remained taboo.
Pakistan has a vibrant media sector that presents a range of news and opinions and hosts lively debates on current affairs. However, there is a history of violence and intimidation selectively directed against media figures by both intelligence agencies and violent extremist groups, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented two journalists’ murders in 2016. The perpetrators of such violence enjoy impunity.
The military retained a prominent place in the media landscape, in part relying on the well-resourced Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to maintain its profile and project its perspectives. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) awards radio and television licenses, maintains a code of conduct which was toughened in 2015, and exercises the power to suspend operators. In October 2016, PEMRA banned the transmission of radio and television broadcasts from India, days after the Indian government had banned Pakistani actors and actresses from working in Indian films; the developments came amid increasing tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) demarcating the Indian- and Pakistani-held parts of Kashmir. The Pakistani Broadcasters Association indicated that they would legally challenge the order, which appeared to be in place at year’s end.
More than 200,000 websites are banned in the country because of their allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, or blasphemous content. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) in January 2016 lifted a three-year ban on the video-hosting website YouTube, with the launch of a new country-specific version of the service and a protocol for the authorities to approach Google, YouTube’s parent company, to suppress objectionable material.
In August, after a year of controversy, the NA passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB). While civil society was heavily involved in debate surrounding the bill, activists complained that the act as passed gives the executive-controlled PTA unchecked powers to censor material on the internet. The act also increases punishments for some offenses already in the penal code and relaxes safeguards against surveillance and breach of privacy.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and protection of minorities have not provided effective checks to discriminatory legislation, social prejudice, and sectarian violence. Members of the Hindu community have complained of vulnerability to kidnapping and forced conversions, and some continue to migrate to India, where they are housed in refugee camps. High-profile blasphemy cases and mob violence have affected the Christian community and others. The most specific discriminatory legislation has been directed at the Ahmadi community, who are prohibited from asserting themselves as Muslims. In December 2016, in Chakwal District, a mob attacked Ahmadis in their place of worship, ultimately setting fire to the building and wounding several people. The mob action occurred soon after a rare example of public recognition of members of the Ahmadi community; days before, Prime Minister Sharif announced that he was renaming the physics department of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad after Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam, a theoretical physicist who belonged to the Ahmadi community.
Pakistan has a long history of using education to portray Hindus and other non-Muslims negatively and to rationalize enmity between Pakistan and India. Attempts to modernize education and introduce tolerance into school textbooks have proven slow and controversial. In recent years, some space has opened for scholars to discuss sensitive issues involving the military. However, the threat of accusations of blasphemy or reprisals from the military still obliges ordinary Pakistanis to self-censor on topics of religion and security.
The constitution guarantees the rights to associate, demonstrate, and organize, but the government sporadically imposes arbitrary restrictions to temporarily ban gatherings or any activity designated a threat to public order, often invoking Section 144 of the Penal Code. Authorities violently dispersed antigovernment protests that took place in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in October 2016, and arrested hundreds of people under Section 144.
The government, acting at both the federal and provincial level, in recent years has significantly limited the ability of civil society organizations to function by enforcing rigid regulatory and reporting rules. Among them are requirements that international and domestic organizations seek official “no-objection certificates” (NOCs) before launching various projects. Foreign NGOs were required to undergo a cumbersome reregistration process under a 2015 initiative, and many had yet to secure official status by the end of 2016.
The rights of workers to organize and form trade unions are recognized in law, and the constitution grants unions the rights to collective bargaining and to strike. However, many categories of workers are excluded from these protections. The procedures that need to be followed for a strike to be legal are onerous. Nevertheless, strikes are organized regularly. Roughly 70 percent of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, where there is limited unionization.
Over the last decade, executive interference in the higher judiciary has decreased, and the judiciary in some cases holds the executive to account. However, the broader justice system is marred by endemic problems including corruption, intimidation, a large backlog of cases, insecurity, and low conviction rates for serious crimes. A separate Federal Sharia Court is empowered to determine whether a provision of law goes against Islamic injunctions. Some communities resort to informal forms of justice, leading to decisions outside formal safeguards.
The National Commission for Human Rights, now in its second year of operation, has made little progress in strengthening human rights protections in the country.
Military courts with powers to try civilians accused of terrorist-related offenses were established in 2015 in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack on a military school, and continued to operate throughout 2016. These courts have convicted scores of people, at least 140 of whom received death sentences; of those, 12 people had been executed by the end of 2016. The courts have drawn significant criticism for their lack of transparency and absence of safeguards to ensure fair trials. Strikingly, the army claimed in November 2016 that over 90 percent of those convicted in the courts had given a confession. The courts’ mandate will end in early 2017. In addition to the military courts, the government continued to seek implementation of death sentences awarded by the judiciary, and more than 400 Pakistanis have been executed since the lifting of the death penalty moratorium in December 2014. Separately, the Protection of Pakistan Act, which gave authorities broad license to carry out arrests and detentions, expired in July 2016 and was not extended.
The FATA are governed by the president. They are subject to the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and lie outside the jurisdiction of the Pakistan Supreme Court. The FCR authorizes the government’s political agents and tribal leaders to apply customary law, and provides for collective punishment. In 2016, a government committee recommended that the FATA integrate with KPK, though there is no clear timetable for implementation.
The military and the intelligence services enjoy impunity for indiscriminate use of force. Extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and other abuses are common. Terrorism suspects, Balochi and Sindhi nationalists, journalists, researchers, and social workers have all been victims of alleged disappearance.
Insurgencies and military efforts to counter them continued to disrupt residents’ lives in 2016, though a deescalation of the insurgency in the FATA was a primary contributor to the national-level reduction in terrorist violence; terrorism-related fatalities fell approximately 50 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year, to 1,803. The army continued security operations in Karachi, which significantly brought down levels of violence there. A major insurgency continued in Baluchistan, and the army also notably deployed in Rajanpur, reportedly to root out a local criminal group. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its offshoots, along with the regional branch of Islamic State militant group and its ally Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, claimed responsibility for high-casualty attacks against civilians and security forces during the year.
Pakistan has long hosted some 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, with approximately one million more unregistered. These include a generation of refugees born and raised in Pakistan, with little or no experience of Afghanistan. The UN Refugee Agency and Pakistani authorities periodically negotiate extensions to refugees’ authorized stays. During the summer of 2016, authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Baluchistan launched what amounted to a campaign of harassment of Afghan communities. Measures taken included mass arrests and deportations, restriction on the ability to rent property, evictions, exclusion from schools, adverse commentary amounting to hate speech, and tighter control of border crossings. Hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to Afghanistan, where security and economic conditions were likely to leave the uprooted refugees vulnerable.
Members of the transgender and intersex community are authorized to register for official documents under a “third gender” classification recognized by the Supreme Court in 2009. In a ruling in 2011, the court granted them the right to vote, enabling them to participate in the 2013 elections. Nonetheless, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are subject to societal and legal discrimination. The penal code prescribes prison terms for consensual sex “against the order of nature.” Although prosecutions are rare, such laws deter LGBT people from acknowledging their orientation or reporting abuses. Transgender and intersex people face de facto discrimination in housing and employment. They are also refused inheritance rights. Many are forced into prostitution or to beg in order to survive.
There are few legal limitations on citizens’ travel or their choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher learning. The main tool for restricting foreign travel is the Exit Control List, which blocks named individuals from using official exit points from the country. The list is meant to include those who pose a security threat and those facing court proceedings, but on occasion it has been used against civil society activists who have worked on issues embarrassing to officials. Some 5,000 names were removed from the list after the Interior Ministry ordered a review of it in 2015. In October 2016, a senior reporter was added to the list after publishing an article discussing counterterrorism strategy, but was soon removed following an outcry from media freedom advocates. The Supreme Court in December ordered the removal of former president Pervez Musharraf from the list, allowing him to leave Pakistan for medical treatment; Musharraf faced treason charges at the time. Separately, restrictions on movement in the FATA were imposed as the army carried out counterinsurgency operations and resettlement programs.
Pakistan’s rampant corruption, weak regulatory environment, and ineffective legal system undermine property rights and economic freedom.
A number of reforms have been enacted in recent years to improve conditions for women. However, the implementation of protective laws has been weak, and violence against women continues unabated. In addition to acid attacks, domestic violence, rape, and so-called honor crimes, women face restrictions on voting and education, especially in KPK, the FATA, and Baluchistan. Political parties maintain women’s wings that are active during elections. However, currently no women hold posts in the federal cabinet or at the helm of mainstream political parties.
Exploitative forms of labor remain common, in particular in the brick kiln industry, where owners have significant political influence that protects them from prosecution. Though bonded and child labor are outlawed, they are widespread in practice.
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Global Freedom Score37 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score25 100 not free