Friday, November 14, 2008

Political Parties in Pakistan by Ahmad Salim





Awami National Party

Pakistan Peoples Party

Political Parties in Pakistan by Ahmad Salim January - February, 2005


In democratic societies, political parties play a significant role in articulating citizens' aspirations. Upon gaining people's support and electoral trust, they serve as a vital link between the state and society. However, Pakistan's elitist political scene portrays a totally different picture. There are over 90 fringe political parties cherishing religious and nationalist ethos and less than a dozen mainstream political parties struggling for breathing space to survive. Though the country appears to be fertile land for growth of political parties, owing to multiple factors, very few would fit into any strict definition of a proper political organization.

Underdeveloped Political Parties

Political parties in Pakistan have remained underdeveloped, courtesy the low level of development of Pakistani society, authoritarian political culture, and an imbalance of power between the powerful state and weak political institutions. Consequently, political parties have failed to contribute substantially towards democratizing the Pakistani state and society. Presently, most of the parties are passing through a critical phase of their existence. The leaders of the three top parties are either in a self-imposed or forced exile.

Political Parties and the Civil Society

Long before the emergence of advocacy dominated non-governmental organizations, Pakistani civil society comprised lawyers, journalists, teachers, trade union activists, social reformers and religious groups. During the 1960s, the student groups had anti-establishment orientation and often identified themselves with democratic political struggles and many were integrated with the political parties.

Political parties, however, by and large failed to become an impressive aggregate of public opinion. Factional turmoil within the political organizations and clashes of interest reduced their effectiveness and allowed the armed forces to dabble in politics and monopolize state resources and control government apparatus. The civil society, therefore, has been left heavily dependent on its apolitical professional

Suppression of Democratic Cultural Activities The cultural workers (intellectuals, theatre activists, actors and singers) also joined hands with political parties for a democratic and tolerant society. They, along with political workers, were subjected to torture, imprisonment, and public humiliation. Perturbed with democratic cultural activities, the first three military regimes in Pakistan either banned such activities or allowed only those aspects of our culture which supported authoritarianism, glorified feudalism or increased religious fanaticism.

Constant curfews in big cities like Karachi and other tactics like ethnic and sectarian snipers forced people to stay indoors. The art, theatre and film industry suffered and the citizens paid many a psychological and emotional cost. Many political parties failed to understand the dictatorial moves and were unable to counter the situation.

Emergence of NGOs

During the third military regime (1977-88) controls on journalists, constraints on academia, intelligentsia and students, and efforts to enforce "Sharia" (Islamic law), resulted in the creation of many non-party based social movements like the Women Action Forum, drama groups – Dastak in Karachi and Ajoka in Lahore – along with revival of Progressive Writers Association (PWA). Later, many more nongovernmental organizations emerged on the country's socio-economic scene. Initially they were accused of depoliticizing the society and whisking away political activists, but today they are able to initiate new debates like transparency, good governance, freedom of information, electoral reforms, women's participation in politics, decentralization, and nuclear non-proliferation, etc. These initiatives are now engaged in a dialogue and discourse with political parties as well, though the scale and scope of such activities is very limited.

Political Parties and Political Education

A majority of Pakistani political parties, except the right-wing religious ideologues, are least interested in any form of political education of the masses. At times, their sole medium of communication remains the platitudes of the political leaders disseminated through the press or public rallies. In the late 1960s, there was a tradition of study circles, position papers by the leaders and supporters, and focused newsletters. But over the time all that has vanished.

In this context perhaps the critical issue remains:

when political parties are hindered from performing their normal functions, and there are examples of forcible intrusions into their nomenclature by the mighty establishment, how they can play any role in democratizing society or to have an open dialogue with other social groups?
Historical Reasons of Weak Political Parties

Within the colonial state structure that Pakistan inherited, the state institutions, like the military and civil bureaucracy, were far more developed than the political institutions such as legislatures and political parties. The All-India Muslim League, to whom power was transferred in August 1947, was unable to transform itself from a movement to a genuine national political party. It was and remains an elitist organization and does not practice internal democracy.

Islamic Politics

Since Pakistan’s inception, the combination of self-interest and Islamic politics has complicated the problem of building a political organization with broad responsibilities to the larger society. Efforts by other parties to contest the power of the League were frustrated and the opposition politicians were often physically prevented from appealing to their constituents and by dubbing them unpatriotic. The League governments used repressive measures against them. The Red Shirt (NWFP), Majlis-i-Ahrar, Jama'at-i-Islami, and the Pakistan National Congress were the targets at different times.

East Bengal's first province-wide elections in 1954, however, dramatized the weakness of the League and its programmes for constructing an Islamic state as the United Front - an organization of all provincial parties – won the elections.

The League also lost its influence in West Pakistan when a Bengali, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, took charge as the prime minister in 1956. The Punjabi landlords sought refuge in a jerry-built organization, the Republican Party. In 1958, the military-led establishment decided to terminate the constitutional experiment, and the 1956 constitution was abrogated, the legislatures were closed, and all political parties were banned.

Pakistani Version of Political Party

The martial law was lifted only when Ayub bestowed his own constitution to the nation in 1962. Ayub believed that it was possible to conduct government without the formal establishment of political parties but had no recourse other than to resurrect his own political party in the parliament. He borrowed the name of the Muslim League, but when the real Muslim League members displayed their outrage, Ayub modified the name, as Convention Muslim league. It performed well under Ayub Khan's military umbrella but in December 1970, with official patronage, it polled only 3.3 per cent of the total votes cast.

Along with other political parties, it was dissolved on July 5, 1977, when the third martial law was imposed. Again in 1986, Mohammad Khan Junejo recreated it after becoming prime minister in the non-party based elections.

The growth of political parties within the parliament is a phenomenon confined only to Pakistan. Otherwise, citizens form parties that politically compete for power and if trusted only then enter power corridors. Besides the establishment's modus operandi to have obedient political parties in its pocket, personality centered Pakistan People's Party and Awami League were able to articulate people's voice and exhibited unique success in the country's first general elections in 1970 on the basis of adult franchise. The politically shocked establishment, instead of transferring power, resorted to military action in East Pakistan, which resulted in the tragic break-up of the country in 1971. Later, Awami League assumed power in Bangladesh and the Pakistan People's Party remains a potent force in Pakistan.

Political Parties and Mass Contact

The development of political parties is related to the level of development of a society, the quality of mutual relations and the nature of the state structure. According to Pakistani social scientist, Dr Inayatullah, the uneven political development in rural and urban areas that affected the growth of parties in the colonial period also persisted, though it gradually narrowed down in 1990s.

The trend affected the development of parties in Pakistan. They mostly remained urban-based, with limited contacts with rural population. In the absence of regular elections there was no pressure on the city-based political parties to reach the 70 percent rural population and integrate it in the political process.

The Problems of Political Parties

Almost all the political parties currently face certain problems. The first is the lack of democracy within the party structure. Second, they are preoccupied with the sole objective of grabbing power. They have failed to encourage the growth of alternate leadership. Third, most of our political parties lack a clear political vision.

Corruption has also eaten into the heart of the society, a society that has few resources and great development demands. Thus, they have alienated the citizens from political sharing and participation.

Lack of inner democracy

All major political parties are accused of democratic malpractices. Their leaders appoint themselves as life chairpersons. Heirs are groomed to take over their father's mantle. Party positions are distributed at a price to favorites.

With a few exceptions, political parties in Pakistan have never held elections within their ranks. Often, influential politicians (landlords and industrial barons) sought and secured important positions in major political parties on the basis of nominations.

The heads of major political parties are nominated by their so-called working committees or Central Boards, which again comprise non-elected nominated members. Down to the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder in the party, the leaders of the different tiers and/or Central Executive Committee nominate the office bearers. Consequently, influential people with clout within the party and high command get themselves nominated to important positions in the party. Social and business upstarts with political ambitions employ similar tactics.

The heads of the country's two largest political parties often cry hoarse over the need to get rid of military dictatorship, yet they continue the dictatorial practice of nominations in their own parties. Such contradictions hinder the flourishing of normative democratic culture. The result of this situation is that the political parties were hardly prepared to cope with the situation arising out of the assumption of power by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999.

Lack of building up of leaders

Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, the leaders of the two mainstream parties, never encouraged the growth of alternate leadership in their parties. According to Pakistani political scientist, Dr Muhammad Waseem, the parties in Pakistan do not build politicians from workers to leaders, from low-ranking to high-ranking public activists and from weak to powerful decision makers, commanding a progressively expanding jurisdictional territory. Hence these parties face a problem in mobilizing their disenchanted workers who seem to be in no mood to make sacrifices for the leadership.

Corruption and lack of transparency

After the October 1999 military coup, many analysts described the two major political parties of Pakistan as “corrupt, incompetent, unpopular and highly damaging to the welfare of the people in Pakistan” and observed that it was plutocracy which was ripping millions of rupees away from the public exchequer. Such charges of corruption against the party leadership further strengthened the feeling of alienation among the people. Political parties’ funding in Pakistan remains an unanswered question.

Political parties and their manifestoes

Ritualistically, every party has its manifesto issued at election time but these manifestoes hide a number of contradictions.

First, while they consciously try to be “all things to all people”, they are also high nuance documents - nuances that only seasoned and native political analysts can adequately fathom. Second, while manifestoes tend to address a long list of problems, they evade prioritizing them - as well as the pledged solutions.

Third, while they promise an array of outputs, they rarely specify how resources, not only financial and economic but political, administrative, cultural and social are to be generated and allocated to mutually competing promises. Fourth, parties are rarely serious enough to sift through and solve even serious contradictions among pledges made in their manifestoes.

The political vision or the lack of it

The emergence of political parties is related to material and cultural advancement of society in which citizens are free to form groups and associations and to articulate their demands and problems. The low level of such advancement and the lack of freedom in Pakistani society, particularly during the first decade, constrained the development of parties. As a result of industrial development, accompanied by certain other social changes during 1960s, new social groups including industrial labor strengthened new parties such as the People's Party, and the old parties like the Awami League increased their following.

The new cadre gave parties a social commitment and political vision. The Pakistan People's Party and other Left oriented political parties took part in the democratic struggle against military dictatorship. The culture of resistance was reflected through the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and other elements of civil society.

The lost vision

But in 1990s the course of political development changed totally. The political direction and vision to enter the 21st century was lost. Major political parties, particularly the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League, set their direction for power struggle, floor crossing and corruption throughout the decade. The lack of vision weakened them to the extent that the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were struck by the dissolution syndrome, twice each.

The weakness of political parties in Pakistan is evident from their massive proliferation and high rate of mortality, their fragmentation into small and ineffective factions, their regionalization and ethnicization with appeal only to a limited number of citizens. This also reflects their indifference to
formulate coherent programmes and policies for winning the support of the broad strata of society. With weak institutional roots in society, parties are amorphous groups tied together by their leaders; some charismatic, others not, some becoming party leaders because of their wealth and the others due to inheritance.

Lack of citizen's participation

The political parties can hope to play a meaningful role only if they succeed in gathering the masses around them. There are rarely any membership campaigns conducted by the parties. Even those who joined them on one or the other pretext have been demoralized. Part of the problem lies in the inner working of these parties, which does not provide a sense of participation to the members.

Lack of mutual understanding

Pakistan’s political parties lack mutual trust and understanding. The culture of political dialogue has never taken roots in Pakistan. It was only in 1977 that the two competing political parties entered into process of negotiations. Today, only circumstances have brought the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League together into the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy.

Mainstream as well as the ethno-regional parties lack internal debate over policy alternatives. Their priorities and preferences are not an outcome of household debates and discussion. Rather, they are identified with their leaders.

How to Overcome these Problems?

Accountable democracy cannot function in Pakistan until drastic changes are made in the formation and functioning of political parties, which can faithfully represent and serve the people through a transparent political system. Educated professional and progressive minded middle class citizens do not have any chance to participate in the democratic process. Our failure to recognize the need to restructure the political party system on fundamental principles of democracy has destroyed our national institutions by corruption and nepotism.

Lack of accountability by the elected autocratic rulers during the past decades has become the accepted feature of our national polity. The chasm between the poor and the rich has reached alarming proportions. By squandering public funds on dubious projects and levying ever-increasing taxes to pay for their extravagant lifestyle, rulers have totally demoralized and crippled the tax paying middle class, which is the productive segment of any developing democratic society.

What Should We Do Now?


Democracy should start at the grassroots level and nothing should be imposed on the people. All political parties’ cadres should elect their basic mohallah, ward, city, province, and national units. These basic units or tiers of a political party should remain in the charge of those workers who are elected under a system that allows members of the party to express their choices through ballots. These units should elect the city leaders who, in turn, form an electoral college for the election of district, provincial and national party leaders.

There should also be a constitutional requirement for political parties to hold elections at least once in two years under the direct supervision of the independent and neutral Election Commission. And the commission should be empowered to disqualify a political party from contesting the national, provincial and local elections if it does not have elected office bearers.


There is a need to create permanent mechanisms for continued accountability within the democratic structures of the state and the parties. There is also a need to look at the problem of corruption in depth and take steps to root it out because not only are the politicians corrupt but the whole of our society is steeped in corruption.

Financial resources

Parties are weak because they lack financial resources. Electoral candidates are relatively strong and do not depend on their respective parties for funding. Unless parties in Pakistan engage themselves in fund-raising activities and thereby finance their electoral and non-electoral activities like political education and training, they will continue to woo local influence for support rather than lend their support to promising individuals within their folds. Secondly, the country needs to debate and encourage the culture of political donations.

Mass contacts

Above all, political parties have to draw their strength from citizens for sustainable democracy instead of looking for behind-the-scene intrigues to grab power. The extended role of intelligence networks in the making and breaking of political parties could only be frustrated when citizens are made capable to vanguard their political rights through legitimate political institutions, i.e. political parties.

Courtesy: Mr Ahmad Salim - SDPI

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