South Asia

The Watershed Moment in 1970 Elections That Broke Pakistan

The 1970 general elections were a fierce contest between two social democratic parties – the west-based Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the east-based Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

General elections were held in Pakistan on December 7, 1970 – 50 years ago today – to elect members of the National Assembly. They were the first general elections since the independence of Pakistan and ultimately the only ones held prior to the independence of Bangladesh. Voting took place in 300 constituencies, of which 162 were in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan.

The elections were a fierce contest between two social democratic parties the west-based Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the east-based Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Awami League was the only major party in the east wing, while in the west wing, the PPP faced competition from the conservative factions of the Muslim League the largest of which was Muslim League (Qayyum), as well as Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP).

The result was a victory for the Awami League, which won an absolute majority of 160 seats, all of which were in East Pakistan. The PPP won only 81 seats, all in West Pakistan.

In the provincial elections held ten days later, the Awami League again dominated in East Pakistan, while the PPP won Punjab and Sindh. The Marxist National Awami Party emerged victorious in the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan.

The National Assembly was initially not inaugurated as the military dictator Yahya Khan and the PPP chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not want a party from East Pakistan heading the federal government. Instead, Yahya appointed the veteran Bengali politician Nurul Amin as prime minister, asking him to reach a compromise between the PPP and Awami League. However, this move failed as the delay in inauguration had already caused significant unrest in East Pakistan. The situation escalated into a civil war that led to the breakup of Pakistan and the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh. The assembly was eventually inaugurated in 1972 after Yahya resigned and handed power to Bhutto. Bhutto became prime minister in 1973 after the post was recreated by a new constitution.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 1971. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Pakistan’s tryst with history

The irony is that the December 7 election, which led directly to the breakup of Pakistan, was seen at the time as a great and historic day – on which crores of Pakistanis used their right to vote and assert their sovereignty.

The National Assembly elections and the enthusiasm they generated was a golden chapter in the history of the struggle for democracy in Pakistan. Until just a few years before, a military dictator used to say that democracy was not suited to the temperament of Pakistanis.

By voting the way they did, the people proclaimed that they had grown weary of the then-prevalent political and social system in the country and wanted to change it as soon as possible. They stood by every such slogan and party which stood for social revolution. Ranged against them were those who claimed Islam was in danger, or that the ideology of Pakistan was in danger. Fatwas of apostasy and heresy were issued upon socialism and its supporters and the election of the National Assembly was presented as a war between Islam and evil. Extremely provocative things were said about the left-wing parties in newspapers, mosque sermons but this storm of propaganda could not influence the people. They were not deceived by the Islamists because their daily experiences had made them aware that the demon of exploitation had worn the clothing of Islamism.

Everyone knew that the sole purpose of the 1970 election was to devise a democratic constitution. There was a strong possibility that indeed if a compromise developed between the Awami League and the Peoples Party then the constitution could very easily be framed in the appointed period of four months.

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Approximately two dozen political and religious parties participated in the elections. Their manifestoes emphasised a solution to the political, economic and social problems of the country and made rosy promises to the people but the results of the election showed that only two parties – the Awami League and the PPP – were acquainted with the habits and disposition of the nation and were those who had the knowledge of the pulse of the feelings, emotions and desires of the people. The motto of both these parties was socialism. On the other hand, the parties which had started off as claimants of the Islamic system to contest the election were totally unsuccessful in identifying with the mood of the common people.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his comrades had been busy in political activities since the very days of the Pakistan movement and their political party was old and experienced; but Bhutto and the Peoples Party were young. The systematic organisation of the Peoples Party was hardly two years at that time. In this short duration, the popularity which this party attained especially in Sindh and Punjab was astonishing. This party had participated in the elections in very unfavourable conditions. Most party workers were young and inexperienced, and the experienced ones were in jail.

East Bengal Cabinet, 1954. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Great responsibilities befell the Peoples Party and the Awami League after this success. They were no longer provincial parties and Mujib and Bhutto were not the leaders of a region but the whole nation. Now they had to prove with their word and action that they were eligible for this position and the trustees of peoples’ interest. The problems and interests of the people were the same everywhere whether they were in Sindh or in Bengal, Punjab, then-North West Frontier Province and Balochistan.

This victory was a big test for the Peoples Party. Its victory at least illuminated the reality that the dominant majority of then-West Pakistan was safe from provincial prejudice, religious frenzy, sectarianism and differences of caste. But the path to political power is very difficult and the PPP and Bhutto failed to do what was needed of them.

It is said that Ravana of Lanka had a thousand hands and when one of his hands got injured, he began to fight with the other hand. Similarly, the affluent classes too have a thousand hands. They do not admit defeat easily nor do they withdraw happily from their political and economic dominance. It is correct that the people clearly defeated them in the 1970 elections but wealth is not an intoxication which an election verdict can take off. The need of the hour was to beware this unlimited power of the enemy.

The stamp of this economic power of the wealthy could also be found on Pakistan’s national laws and institutions of law and order, especially the military, which were arrayed against popular demands whether it be the clash of democracy and dictatorship, the conflict of capital and labour, the struggle for citizens’ rights, the demand for wage increases or linguistic rights.

Sometimes section 144 was imposed to maintain peace, sometimes strikes were declared illegal under cover of basic industry, sometimes people were arrested without registering a case against them or presenting them in court for the security of Pakistan; though there was no such law according to which those who raised the prices of basic necessities received proper punishment. No such law was present according to which a case be registered upon non-provision of conveniences of medicine and treatment; or to investigate those who kept the nation ignorant; or according to which the hungry, homeless, unclothed and unemployed could move the chains of the court.

In short, Pakistan’s economic and social life was at that moment held captive inside a triangle. One angle of this triangle represented the interest of the ruling classes; the second, law; and the third was the the bureaucracy and the establishment. All these three angles were related to each other as well as being helpers and supporters of each other. No problem of the people could be solved without breaking the power of this triangle.

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The big question confronting the victors of the 1970 elections in Pakistan was how to break the power of this triangle. The electorate wanted the Awami League and Peoples Party to act honestly upon the socialist principles of their manifestos while formulating a new constitution that would guarantee the rights of all.

Alas all of this came to naught as the elected assembly initially did not meet as the dictator Yahya Khan and Bhutto’s PPP did not want the majority party from East Pakistan to form government, as was its right. This caused great unrest in East Pakistan, which soon escalated into the call for independence on March 26, 1971 and ultimately led to a war of independence with East Pakistan becoming the independent state of Bangladesh.

The assembly session was eventually held when Khan resigned four days after Pakistan surrendered in Bangladesh and Bhutto took over. Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1973, after the post was recreated by the new Constitution.

The lesson from the 1970 election that eventually broke Pakistan a year later and its aftermath was that the popularity which is attained during some temporary excitement upon the shoulders of the people, is indeed temporary and comes and goes. These events proved and continue to prove in Naya Pakistan 50 years on that permanent and durable leadership is the one which remains steadfast on the righteous path of ideas and action for the completion of the true interests of the people and the remedy of their basic issues.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader, currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at [email protected].