The goal of a democracy is to thwart dictatorships through pluralism and inclusivity so that every citizen in the state feels they have a stake in the system and its resources.
The best democracies serve this purpose through political parties that form a bridge between free citizens and the democratic state. They allow a broad range of popular goals and strategies to be championed and accommodated. But that is the ideal framework of politics.
The quality of democracy in a state is directly proportional to the quality of political parties, and the scale of the gap between what they claim and what they deliver.
There are specific functions of political parties but carrying them out effectively depends on whether the parties are in power, in the opposition or in the narrow in-between world of elections.
The key functions include articulating on behalf of the people, political goals centered around participatory citizenship, short-listing priorities, developing policies, creating and managing implementation mechanisms, facilitating good governance, promoting transparency, strengthening political, economic and social stability, political education of citizens, mobilising voters and continuously developing a leadership cadre that can champion and facilitate participatory politics and strengthen democracy over succeeding generations.
Now that Pakistan’s eleventh general elections in 70 years are due in a few weeks’ time, how do the country’s political parties fare in their primary functions and impact on the quality of its parliamentary democracy? Even a cursory, unscientific view reveals that the results are mixed.
The Pakistani polity has failed its primary test of ensuring political stability. For nearly half of its life the country has been governed by the military. The political parties have, generally, failed to strengthen politics and consolidate democracy beyond merely governance cycles. This impedes their functions.
Not that the parties haven’t tried. When even the country’s steely 1973 Constitution failed to thwart two bouts of martial law, in 2006 bitter political foes — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — developed the landmark Charter of Democracy that essentially promised they won’t fight each other as long as they were fighting cannibalisation of the political space by the military.
Even while the charter worked — General Musharraf was politically deposed, democracy was restored and two consecutive governments completed their full 5-year constitutional tenures for the first time — it failed to protect their principal leaders. Bhutto was assassinated, removed physically and Sharif was deposed permanently.
The strongest test of democratic credentials of political parties comes during their stints in opposition. While critiquing the government on governance, opposition parties are supposed to help change policies, not undermine politics. Here Pakistani parties have fallen short.
After initial adherence to the charter, first Sharif’s opposition PML-N severely undermined the PPP government by siding with the military establishment in 2012-13, then Zardari’s opposition PPP likewise chose to support the establishment against the PML-N government in 2017-18 to force Sharif out. Both parties, thus, ended up contributing to weakening democracy by wantonly betraying their primary function. Some other key opposition parties, including Imran Khan’s PTI and Sirajul Haq’s JI did the same.
There is also a mixed bag in terms of concrete results when it comes to the functions of parties in power. Three of the largest — PML-N, PPP and PTI — were in office in separate provinces with PML-N at the centre. All fell vastly short of expectations in terms of their primary functions — developing policies, enacting supporting legislation and instituting mechanisms based on people’s priorities.
For the about 50 months that Sharif was prime minister, he barely conducted 30 federal cabinet meetings and attended parliament fewer than 20 times. Other than focusing on electricity generation and building motorways, he was monumental in his disinterest of everything else.
While the three parties generally fared better in terms of governing Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, this was mostly in the domain of reformulating policies and enacting legislation, which is only one-half of governance.
In terms of building implementation mechanisms and demonstrating results in the social development sector, especially health, education, environment, livelihood, gender and justice, things did not change much beyond commitments. Ministers and party leaders spent more time attending talk shows to criticise their opponents than attending their offices for work. This is why there were almost no press conferences by ministries in any province showcasing their work or achievements in five years. The federal government in its last two cabinet meetings issued no less than six new policies — something that should have come in the first year, not the last week.
But perhaps the biggest failure of political parties in Pakistan is their collective inability to institutionalise their interface with their voters, civil society and intelligentsia during their five-year tenures. This has ended up aiding an unprofessional media to poison public perceptions about politics and political parties. Without inputs from their supporters, the parties have failed to keep pace with the changing priorities of the electorate.
With a very few exceptions, political parties have not been engaging, wooing and inducting new experts and thought leaders from civil society into their ranks, and providing them berths within the party and the Senate to consolidate public support. Hence, the growing public disillusionment with parties.
Absence of self-accountability (parties rarely hold central executive committee meetings), indifference to urgent and changing public priorities and failure to embrace national, social, gender, cultural and political pluralisms on an ongoing basis leaves no time to attend to these in the brief election period.
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Simply put, except for habitually turncoat politicians no one from the civil society and the electorate at large wants to join political parties — there is simply no entryway. This growing irrelevancy of political parties in Pakistan is because they no longer represent an opportunity for political careers for the emerging middle class and burgeoning intelligentsia. Theirs is a collective failure of social imagination and political inspiration.
In the new millennium, Pakistan has become a vibrant, upwardly mobile pluralist, urban social milieu but its political parties are still stuck in an unchanging feudally-inclined familial mode that is ill-equipped to serve modern purposes. No wonder, the party-voter trust deficit is ballooning, and a delighted security establishment continues to ride roughshod over a drifting polity’s unmet aspirations.