First General Elections in Pakistan

Written by Ayesha Khan 6:30 pm Articles, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content • One Comment

Shaping History: The First General Elections in Pakistan

In 1970, Yahya Khan, who imposed Pakistan’s second martial law, issued a Legal Framework Order for the first general elections. The landmark elections of 1970 ushered in a new era, setting the stage for significant changes in Pakistan’s political and territorial landscape. They not only left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s electoral history but also paved the way for future developments and decisions in the country.
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Ayesha Khan is a student at the University of Karachi. She's a critical thinker and has an interest in writing.

Pakistan’s First Constitution and Martial Law

The 1956 Constitution of Pakistan was based on a unicameral system, a system based on one legislative house. The constitution came up with a parliamentary form of government, with the president having all the executive powers. The president was made the head of the state and was to be elected by the members of the national and provincial assemblies. The National Assembly contained 300 seats—150 from East Pakistan and 150 from West Pakistan. However, 10 seats (5 from each wing) were reserved for women. Through the enforcement of the constitution, Iskandar Mirza was elected as the first president of Pakistan.

On October 7, 1958, President Iskandar Mirza imposed the first martial law and dissolved the national and provincial assemblies. Ministers were terminated, civil liberties were suspended, and political parties were prohibited. The motive behind this decision was said to be the establishment of a structured and feasible form of government within the country. He appointed General Ayub Khan as the commander-in-chief of the Army and the chief martial law administrator (CMLA). The martial law ended on October 27, 1958, along with the termination of Iskandar Mirza’s tenure.

The Constitution of 1962

General Ayub Khan became the second president of Pakistan and formed the Constitutional Commission. The sole purpose of the commission was to form a draft of a democratic government in accordance with the socio-political circumstances of the country and the Islamic principles of justice. Though the constitution was submitted by the commission on April 29, 1961, it was enforced in 1962.

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The Constitution of 1962 favored a federal state with a presidential form of government. All the executive powers belonged to the president, and provincial governors were to be elected directly by him. The election system was indirect, in which 80,000 (40,000 from each wing) basic democrats were present. It was also declared that if the president hails from West Pakistan, then the speaker of the National Assembly should be from East Pakistan, and conversely. The highlighted factor of this constitution was the Political Parties Act, 1962. This act was introduced to modulate political activities in the country.

Pakistan’s First General Elections

The Legal Framework Order

On March 25, 1969, a second martial law was imposed by General Yahya Khan. He became president and dissolved the one-unit scheme. Under his tenure, one of the most notable factors was the issuance of the Legal Framework Order (LFO), which he promulgated in March 1970. The LFO announced free and fair elections, leading the way for the first general elections in Pakistan since its independence. The elected government was going to be the first democratically elected civilian government. In this way, the first general elections in Pakistan were scheduled on 7th December 1970.

West PakistanEast Pakistan
Reserved seats131162
Seats for women67
Tribal areas7
Total seats144169
Division of Seats in the National Assembly in 1970

According to the LFO, there were a total of 313 seats in the National Assembly. 162 of the total seats were reserved for East Pakistan and 131 for West Pakistan. However, 13 seats were allocated to women, 7 from East and 6 from West Pakistan. Collectively, it maintained 169 seats for East Pakistan and 144 for West Pakistan. Out of the 144 seats in West Pakistan, 85 were from Punjab, 28 were from Sindh, 19 were from NWFP, and 5 were from Balochistan. While 7 were allotted to the tribal areas. As for provincial assemblies, there were 400 seats in the assembly of East Pakistan, 186 in the Punjab assembly, 62 in Sindh, 42 in NWFP, and 21 seats in Balochistan.

The Political Contenders

The political campaigns started in the country on the 1st of January, 1970. At that time, the two main contending parties were the Awami League and the PPP. Headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League’s manifesto was nationalism and autonomy for the eastern wing, as described in the popular “six points” by its leader.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1950

On the other hand, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto led the PPP with a manifesto of Islamic socialism and the formation of a democratic state and an egalitarian society. The PPP, during its campaign, highlighted the issues of land reforms, industrialization, and labor reforms.

President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971
President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971

Besides the PPP and the AL, the other political parties that participated in the first general elections in Pakistan were:

  • Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)
  • Awami League (AL)
  • Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)
  • PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League-Qayyum)
  • Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)
  • Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP)
  • PML-Convention (PML-C)
  • National Awami Party (NAP)
  • Pakistan Democratic Party

While each party had its own manifesto and aim, the Islamist parties focused on making Pakistan an Islamic democratic state and promoted their campaigns in accordance with it.

Election Results

The election process began with the registration of voters and their verification for the inclusion of eligible candidates. Typically, voter registration and verification were conducted through electoral rolls. Polling stations were established across the country, and election officials were assigned for supervision. On December 7, 1970, voters cast their votes on the ballot paper. Sixty percent of registered voters asserted their national responsibility by participating in the electoral process. After the successful polls, the boxes containing ballot papers were sealed and transported to central counting centers. The officials then counted the votes, and the results were announced.

The AL won 160 out of 162 general seats and all seven seats reserved for women in the National Assembly. The Awami League was the sole winner from East Pakistan, while in the west wing, the PPP emerged as the leading party with 81 general seats and 5 women’s seats. Additionally, PML-Q, JUI, JUP, PML-C, NAP, and JI secured 9, 7, 7, 7, 6, and 4 seats, respectively, in the western wing. However, a total of 151 seats were required to secure victory in the election. 

Ten days later, on 17, provincial elections were held, and the Awami League was the leading party again. On the other hand, the PPP won from Sindh and Punjab, while the National Awami Party won from NWFP and Balochistan. It was the first assembly elected by direct adult franchise and population basis in Pakistan. The elections caused a deep political and cultural division in the eastern and western wings. Despite being the leading party, AL couldn’t form a government, and its advocacy for the autonomy of the East was blocked.

Yahya Khan and other higher authorities from the West declined the formation of a federal government by politicians from East Pakistan. As a result, Yahya Khan appointed a veteran politician, Nurul Amin, to settle the agreement between the AL and PPP. Nurul Amin became prime minister of Pakistan for 13 days—from December 7 to December 20, 1971—serving the shortest tenure in the history of the state. Later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the PPP became the first-ever civilian martial law administrator of Pakistan.

Turmoil in the State

Following the first general elections, riots ensued between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan. Easterners wanted Bengali alongside Urdu as a national language. Despite being the majority, they were being treated as a minority, and their rights in the governmental authorities were denied by the government officials of West Pakistan. In November 1970, the Bhola Cyclone struck East Pakistan, resulting in the devastation of 200,000–500,000 people due to inadequate measures. The havoc caused by the cyclone was particularly attributed to West Pakistan.

These were just a few of the factors that contributed to a much larger issue—the war of 1971. As a result of the Bangladesh Liberation War between the armed forces of the West and the Bengali nationalists of the East, East Pakistan emerged as Bangladesh on the world map on March 26, 1971. The first session of the National Assembly was delayed until April 14, 1972 because of the separation of East Pakistan. When the session finally took place in the State Bank building of Islamabad, all of the 144 members of the National Assembly from the former West Pakistan made an appearance.

The constitution was dissolved by Yahya Khan, and until a new constitution was drafted, an interim constitution was adopted. In 1972, the National Assembly established a constitutional committee tasked with drafting the new constitution of Pakistan, which was subsequently implemented on the country’s independence day the following year.

On the same day, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took the oath as prime minister of Pakistan. Under the 1973 Constitution, Pakistan was declared the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” and a bicameral system was adopted within the country. The constitution enshrined the principles of democracy, ensuring the right of citizens to freely elect their representatives through periodic and transparent elections. Consequently, the general elections in Pakistan continued after the landmark elections held in 1970.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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