Pakistani Political Parties And The Democratic Deficit

Unlike India and Sri Lanka’s uninterrupted commitment to democracy since independence, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have as yet failed to attain democratic consolidation.

Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has experienced democracy for only about 28 years. The lack of internal democracy within Pakistani political parties has been both a cause and an outcome of Pakistan’s chequered democratic track-record.

This weakness has made it easier for unelected institutions like the military to derail democracy. In turn, this prolonged derailment has shielded parties from the public pressures for improvement that regular elections impose on them.

Political parties are formally organised public groups seeking political power. They serve three key functions: mobilisation — identifying critical problems, and developing political agendas and coalitions around them — electioneering, and, if they win elections, governance. Different political parties exhibit different organisational features and agenda structures in performing these functions.

Organisationally, party leadership is either personalised or merit-based. Personalised parties are formed by charismatic persons and often become dynastic entities centred around the founder’s family.

Among Pakistan’s five biggest parties, together winning 80 per cent of national assembly (NA) seats in the last election, three — the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Party of Islamic Scholars, JUI) — are dynastic parties. The remaining two — Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement, PTI) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement, MQM) — still revolve around the charismatic founders that have led them since their formation.

Most smaller parties exhibit similar patterns. Even where the broader leadership is non-familial — for example, in PTI and MQM — top leaders mostly belong to one ethnicity. Hardly any party has genuine all-Pakistan leadership or appeal. Thus, the practice of regular party leadership renewal through credible internal elections seen in mature democracies is largely missing.

The second organisational difference relates to leadership background. Pakistani parties exhibit variation here. The PML, Pakistan’s largest party, is led by urban industrialists while the PTI, Pakistan’s third largest party, and MQM by urban professionals. The PPP, Pakistan’s second largest party, is led by rural landlords and the JUI by rural clerics.

Overall, more than 80 per cent of national assembly seats in 2013 were won by urban-led parties even though Pakistan is a largely rural country. The widely held view that Pakistani politics is monopolised by wealthy landlords is thus inaccurate. Ironically, Pakistan started out with urban middle-class professional leadership — Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, was a lawyer in 1947.

Another organisational issue is whether a party is mass-based or skeletal. The MQM and to some extent the PPP have a mass-based structure with deep roots into their respective constituencies. The other parties lack structural depth or the ability to significantly mobilise their constituencies.

When it comes to agendas, parties can be particularistic or universalistic. Particularistic parties focus on a limited number of issues, a defined geography or particular identity groups. The PPP, PML, PTI and JUI are all universalistic on paper, while the MQM focuses on one specific ethnic group largely residing in Karachi and nearby cities.

But even universalistic parties have become largely restricted to one ethnicity or province. In 2013, four of these parties obtained at least 90 per cent of their NA seats from one ethnicity. Only PTI drew 60 per cent of its seats from the largely Pashtun province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 30 per cent from Punjab province. But its leadership, like the other four parties, displays severe ethnic homogeneity.

Most Pakistani parties (except for the PTI) are generally viewed as patronage-focused, rather than reliant on certain signature policies. This is a result of Pakistan’s patronage-based economy, in which individuals’ fortunes are generally tied to family-based connections rather than merit. Because of this, it is important for people to develop patronage relationships with local party leaders to resolve daily issues.

In terms of ideology, the JUI, PTI and the PML represent conservative politics while the PPP and MQM are centrist. Right-wing parties won nearly 70 per cent of NA seats in 2013 and there is little chance of centrist parties led by the PPP returning to power in the near future.

In Pakistan, people have a strong love–hate relationship with parties. Corrupt, incompetent and nepotistic are the terms commonly used by Pakistanis to describe the very parties that they regularly re-elect. Many believe that ruthless accountability and electoral reforms under an un-elected government will lead to the emergence of clean and honest parties.

But political parties emerge from and reflect society. Pakistani parties merely encapsulate the perverse local socio-economic patterns that pervade Pakistani society, even in the absence of political parties — such as under military rule.Pakistani political parties, like its society, can only change gradually.

This article was republished from EastAsiaForum.org. The author, Niaz Murtaza is a Senior Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

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