Democracy Game Theory for Pakistan

Image Source: State emblem of Pakistan – Public Domain

The democracy game theory captures how Pakistan’s democracy works in fits and starts. The people elect most (not all) political players for the game in periodic elections. Yet, the game is much more complicated than a simple representative democracy under a written constitution. The most engaging element of the game is the stealth player, known as the (military) establishment. When poorly played, the democracy game is intense, impulsive, and random, and political players can squander most of their resources, gaining little and hurting the game. Playing erratically, the unskilled players have little time to develop social and economic policies for the people’s welfare.

This commentary offers several game strategies that promise political stability and might even prevent military coups. Unfortunately, the game theory does not fully comport with the conventional principles of democracy. By no means is the democracy game theory superior to representative democracy. The game theory builds on the realism norm that the stealth player will continue to influence democracy in the foreseeable future. The game theory is irrelevant if the stealth player no longer interferes in the democratic process.

Six Chambers

Pakistan, the fifth largest nation globally, is a federation of four provinces (and a few unabsorbed territories). The 1973 constitution establishes a parliamentary form of government with a bicameral legislature at the center and a single legislative chamber in each province.

Thus, there are six democracy chambers, two at the center and four in the provinces (Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan). Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has held 13 elections, a few under the stealth player’s dictates.

The two chambers at the center are National Assembly and Senate. The National Assembly consists of 266 popularly elected representatives and 70 appointees (60 women and 10 non-Muslims), totaling 336 chamber members. Punjab is the most populated province with 173 seats in the National Assembly, while Balochistan is the least populated with 23 seats. Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seat 75 and 55 representatives in the National Assembly, respectively. (The numbers are in transition as the tribal areas join Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

The Senate consists of 96 chamber members, 23 for each of the four provinces and four for the Islamabad Capital Territory. The four provincial assemblies elect 92 senators, and the National Assembly elects four senators for the capital territory. Out of 96, Article 59 mandates the inclusion of 16 women and four non-Muslim senators.

The two national chambers, National Assembly and Senate, with 432 (266 + 70 + 96) members, elected and chosen, including the prime minister and opposition leaders, play the democracy game of ruling the country, opposing the government policies, and making laws and policies for the people’s benefit.

The four provincial chambers with varying numbers of members host a parliamentary form of government in each province.

Game Theoretics

The democracy game offers several theoretical options. The best play for a player is to control all the six democracy chambers (National Assembly, Senate, and four provincial assemblies). This outcome would institute a monopoly over all chambers, a rare possibility not available even to the stealth player. The second-best play for a player is to acquire a supermajority in each chamber, particularly in the national chambers. If no party obtains a supermajority in any chamber, each player’s next option is to get as much control of the six chambers as possible.

The democracy game offers rewards. A winner of a majority of the National Assembly seats forms the federal government for five years. Likewise, most provincial assembly seats reward the winner with the local government for five years. If a winner has a supermajority in both the National Assembly and the Senate, the player can alter the game’s rules as it pleases.

Suppose no player wins a majority in the National Assembly or a provincial assembly. In that case, two or more players may pool their seats to build a coalition majority and control the corresponding government. For example, Pakistan Tahreek Insaf (PTI) is presently ruling Pakistan (the center) and Punjab (the province) by forming a coalition with minor parties seated in the chambers.

Political Players

The constitution places no limit on the number of players that can compete for seats in the chambers. Liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, all can play. Some players are independent individuals, but most are political parties that contest elections to win seats in the chambers. Currently, 127 political parties have registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), a constitutional institution responsible for holding direct and indirect elections to the six chambers.

Over several years, thirteen (13) political parties have emerged as the most prominent players. The big three players, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and PTI, control 83% of the current National Assembly seats. Ten (10) small players hold the remaining 17% of the seats. Likewise, the big three players control the four provincial chambers, with or without small players’ help.

Some political players are dynastic monopolies where the family members inherit the party. PPP is a party of the Bhutto dynasty, and PMLN is of the Sharif dynasty. The principal policy of a dynastic party is to discourage the emergence of any leader within the party who might challenge the dynasty. Members elected on the party ticket, by political necessity, hold the dynasty in high esteem.

The non-dynastic parties revolve around a religious man or a cult figure. Much like dynastic parties, religious and cult parties prevent any party member from developing a competitive leadership advantage. PTI, for example, is a cult party under the leadership of Imran Khan, the current Prime Minister. Jamiat Ulema -e-Islam (JUI), a minor party, is under the command of a religious leader, Maulana Fazal- ur- Rehman, who inherited the party from his father. Members elected on the ticket of a religious party or cult party hold the leader in high respect, for their seat in any chamber hinges on the leader’s mercy.

Parties are rarely internally democratic. They are pyramidical. Since power resides in the party chief’s person, only thirteen individuals dominate the six chambers. A savvy party chief may build a consensus within the party before deciding an issue but is free to dictate. Some party chiefs lead their party from outside Pakistan. Party Chief Nawaz Sharif of PMLN resides in London in self-exile but exercises supreme authority over what the party must do on various gameplays.

One may, for valid reasons, criticize the dynastic parties and lack of internal democracy in the parties. The democracy game theory, however, takes the players as they are.

Chamber Members

Just as the League of Legends’ champions (a computer game) are at the players’ disposal, the chamber members seated in the six chambers act according to the payers’ directives. In a representative democracy, the people’s representatives hold the ultimate executive and legislative powers. Under Pakistan’s democracy game, however, chamber members are rarely autonomous. Becoming a chamber member is a party privilege: A person may work for years for a party and still may not get a ticket to contest for a chamber seat.

Many chamber members are influential and wealthy persons. Some are tribal chiefs; some are pirs (spiritual leaders); some are feudal lords. Some members abruptly appear on the political stage and win seats on a leading figure’s coattails. Members in the ruling party lobby, sometimes through the stealth player’s auspices, to become vizirs (ministers). Some vizirs use the office to gather wealth and plum jobs for family members.

Some chamber members switch parties before a general election. For example, many PPP and some PMLN members left the party to join PTI, betting that PTI would win the 2018 general elections.

As the game works poorly, most chamber members do not develop any statecraft skills. Some are semiliterate. Even the educated members spend their time in political scandals and learn little about the nation’s economy, defense, and foreign affairs. The members serving as ministers in various portfolios display incompetence and cannot lead the department. The bureaucrats working under them may manipulate the system for corrupt practices. Frequently, even the prime minister, engrossed in high-sounding rhetoric without knowledge, fails to institute effective policies.

The most valuable chamber members occupy National Assembly and Senate. Under the laws, the chamber members cannot switch the party that sponsored their election without losing the chamber seats. In leadership elections for the Speaker, Senate Chairman, Prime Minister, the chamber members are expected to vote along party lines. Still, covertly disagreeing with the party chief, some chamber members skip a voting session for fake reasons, including simulated sickness.

Some chamber members take bribes. In constitutionally mandated secret elections, such as when the National Assembly elects senators, some chamber members receive vast amounts of money to cast their secret ballot for a rival party candidate or make deliberate blunders to invalidate their vote. PPP is notorious for buying chamber members of rival parties to obtain senate seats.

The secrecy rule changes the game outcomes, and the losing player begrudges the rule. Yet, the players are unwilling to amend the law. Secrecy has selective benefits. Some parties instruct their chamber members to vote against an alliance candidate. Secrecy allows the chamber members to vote for a nonparty candidate in exchange for money. The stealth player may persuade or pressure some chamber members to vote for a particular candidate against the party’s directive. Secrecy hides all these shenanigans.

Stealth Player

The military generals, including the heads of intelligence agencies, constitute the stealth player, perhaps the most organized player in the system. The stealth player does not register with the ECP. The stealth player does not contest elections but influences the elections from behind the scenes. The stealth player is most interested in the National Assembly’s member composition. The stealth player has only a marginal interest in provincial chambers but reserves the power to intervene if a self-serving need arises.

Much like dynastic, religious, and cult parties, the stealth party also involves a central figure, called the COAS (Chief of the Army Staff). Since the COAS has a limited tenure, the leadership changes every three to six years depending on whether the COAS serves one term or two. All stealth members, mainly the top generals and intelligence chiefs, owe allegiance to the COAS. The rebels, if any, are severely punished.

The stealth player prefers that no political player holds a majority in the National Assembly. In that case, the stealth player can pressure small parties to make alliances with a big party of choice. For example, the stealth player persuaded and pressured several minor parties to support PTI to form the government. Still, PTI enjoys a narrow edge over the opposition in the National Assembly.

Unlike political players, the stealth player does not admit that it plays the game and pretends to be politically neutral. However, all players know that the stealth player commands extraordinary powers to break up the parties, launch new parties, coerce the members to vote one way or the other on important issues.

If political turmoil intensifies, the stealth player may overthrow a government, even if the ruling party has a supermajority in the National Assembly. In 1977, COAS Zia ul Haq overthrew the Bhutto government, and, in 1999, COAS Pervez Musharraf staged a coup against the Sharif government. A military takeover suspends the democracy game for years.

The critics may validly argue that the military has no role in representative democracy and should stay out of politics. However, the game theory recognizes the fact the military is a stealth player in the game.

Poor Strategies

Political parties employ several poor strategies to play the democracy game. Some strategies are dysfunctional, some backfire, and most damage the game.

The favorite strategy for a political party is to cultivate a close relationship with the stealth player. This strategy allows the party to win electoral seats and sustain a government for the entire term. Currently, PTI collaborates with the stealth player to stay in power despite dismal performance as a government. This strategy works only if the ruling party can solve the people’s socioeconomic problems.

If the stealth player does not cooperate with a party, the party’s alternative strategy is to go public and protest that the stealth player should stay out of politics. PMLN repeatedly argues for “authentic democracy” because the stealth player has been less inclined to favor PMLN in recent political contests. However, this strategy hurts the credibility of the disfavored party that otherwise seeks stealth player’s favors.

The most flawed strategy for political players is to undermine the legitimacy of the general election. The allegation of rigged elections undermines the credibility of the winner in forming a government. The rigging charges prompt the losing players to demand mid-term elections. In the 2013 general elections, PTI staged protests against PMLN for winning the polls through allegedly massive vote fraud. In 2018, the losing parties, including PMLN, did not accept the electoral results and blamed the stealth player for PTI’s electoral victory. This strategy to discredit every election outcome harms the game.

The stealth player’s strategy is not to allow any political party to sweep the elections and obtain a supermajority in the National Assembly. A supermajority reduces the stealth player’s leverage over the government in allocating resources to the armed forces and foreign policy. Unfortunately, supermajority creates resentment in political circles as it eliminates many players from the game. The one-party rule, even based on genuine elections, is incompatible with Pakistan’s game theory.

Suppose a political party ends up with a supermajority. In that case, the stealth player may empower the losing parties to band against the government, stage protests, intensify charges of rigged elections, and even use legal means to disqualify the prime minister. PMLN, after a stellar performance in the 2013 general elections, faced stiff opposition. Amid political turmoil, the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif for life from the Prime Ministership. This strategy, much like a military coup, scorches the game.

Superior Strategies

All players, including the stealth player, are better off when they employ strategies that sustain the democracy game. They should reject tactics that stop and start the democracy game repeatedly. Note that only the stealth player has the inbuilt power to suspend or terminate the democracy game through a military coup.

The following nine strategies sustain the democracy game, benefit all players, and profit the people of Pakistan who expect the system to solve their socioeconomic problems.

First, repeatedly changing the rules of the game does not improve the game. The 1973 constitution offers a practical structure that needs no significant alterations. For example, it is unnecessary to ditch the current parliamentary form of government and adopt the presidential system. Likewise, weakening the provincial autonomy changes the game without any improvement.

Second, political players should acknowledge that “genuine democracy” without any stealth player interference is unlikely anytime soon. With this knowledge, the parties can nonetheless limit the stealth player’s influence by empowering the ECP to conduct fair elections as far as possible. Rubbishing the ECP strengthens the stealth player.

Third, the players must allow the winner to complete the five-year term without trashing the election results, without demanding mid-term elections, without creating political turmoil through dharnas (sit-ins) and “long marches.” In the last six to nine months of the five-year term, the parties can campaign to highlight the government’s poor performance. Since democracy is not a one-time but a sequential game, this strategy benefits all winners. Every player should patiently wait to win the next elections.

Fourth, the dissolution of chambers, mass resignations, and arbitrary removal of prime ministers undermine the democracy game. The Supreme Court should restrain itself from the disqualification of prime ministers. Minor parties, such as the JUI, with little stake in the system, should not be allowed to lead the dismantling of a democratic government.

Fifth, the chamber members may enhance their political worth by rooting themselves in constituencies and, more importantly, developing statecraft skills in specific fields, such as economy, transportation, defense, international trade, agriculture, and foreign policy. They can hire expert staff to develop their knowledge. The party chiefs are likely to value competent members much more than if they are easily replaceable. With the media’s help, a well-informed electorate refuses to vote for chamber members who do little to improve their districts. (Unfortunately, the evening talk shows promote useless gossip.)

Sixth, to enhance its contributions, the stealth player may sponsor research cells in various fields to formulate well-informed policies and share them with the government and the chambers.

Seventh, the stealth player should not exclude any big parties from forming a (coalition) government in one of the provinces. For example, if PMLN forms a government in Punjab, PPP in Sindh, and PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the system is much more stable, and grievances against the stealth player much muter. A blatant exclusion of a big party from forming a provincial government undermines the game.

Eighth, the stealth player must recognize that an outright coup against a democratic government is no longer a viable strategy no matter how bad the government. Any suspension of the democracy game ferments internal instability, provokes external aggression, and summons international sanctions, which, in the future, might be placed on the generals staging the coup.

Ninth, the parties may consider modifying the constitutional secrecy rule (Article 226) of voting within the chambers. The secrecy rule leads to corrupt practices as members can secretly sell their votes. However, the secrecy rule is beneficial because it permits members to vote for a candidate they think is the most competent for an office. The secrecy rule’s alteration is unnecessary if the players are willing to accept the outcome anomalies.


Unfortunately, Pakistan’s democracy with periodic free and fair elections without military interference has not taken root despite various constitutional experimentations. All political parties realize that they should discard do-or-die strategies that suspend democracy and invite military coups. However, democracy is much more valuable for the people if chamber members develop statecraft skills. The stealth player can play a constructive role in the game theory without spoiling democracy. Though incompatible with a conventional view of democracy, the game theory offers a workable democratic system.

L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He welcomes comments at