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Political cabals

To form modern democratic institutions, there is an urgent need to end political parties’ dependence on a few wealthy families

Political cabals

Amongst political institutions, political parties occupy a pivotal position because of the crucial role that they play in formulating national policies, chalking out development plans and strategies. In fact, the political structure of contemporary democracies hinges on political parties, which are considered paramount for the organisation of modern democratic institutions as well as for the expression and manifestation of political consciousness.

If the political parties are vibrant entities run on democratic lines, they can tailor programmes and policies in keeping with the needs of the time, groom party cadres for various leadership roles and also provide them guidance about the ways and means to face and react to various emerging situations. For achieving these objectives and leading the country towards progress and prosperity, political parties establish party secretariats, party foundations and training institutions staffed with experts and specialists on various facets of life.

Though the success of political systems largely depends upon strong, organised and vibrant political parties, we find that in Pakistan most of them do not have adequately staffed secretariats and other requisite infrastructure to foster relations with the people on a sustained basis or discharge roles and functions of multifarious nature in party development, governance, citizen participation and election processes.

Furthermore, a majority of them are power bases of the elite, with landed, industrial and tribal aristocracy dominating their leadership. With the passage of time, the hold of those wealthy individuals strengthens over the party affairs to an extent that it virtually turns into a party managed and patronised by a family, thus paving the way for dynastic rule. Most of these parties can be characterised by a general lack of communication between the party leaders, workers and members. The relative weakness of party branches results in candidates being chosen by the central leadership according to the wealth and influence of a potential candidate.

Since the very bedrock — the political parties — is weak, the system that is built over it remains feeble. Thus, there is an urgent need to democratise and strengthen the political parties and, in turn, the political system to meet the challenges of modern statecraft.

Understandably, for want of strong political institutions, Pakistan often remains mired in crisis situations. A similar situation prevails in many third world countries. In his book “Transformative Political Leadership,” Robert I. Rotberg has drawn a pen picture of the abysmal situation and the factors leading to it. He writes: “Accomplished political leaders have a clear strategy for turning political visions into reality. Through well-honed analytical, political, and emotional intelligence, leaders chart paths to promising futures that include economic growth, material prosperity, and human well-being. Alas, such leaders are rare in the developing world, where often institutions are weak and greed and corruption strong…”

Political thinkers and writers, including Robert McFarlane (advisor to US President Reagan), have termed this type of democracy “a feudal cabal.” In such a feudal cabal or competitive authoritarian regime, elections may be bitterly contested and may not be massively rigged but the incumbents or powerful groups can influence the outcome through abuse of state power and its institutions, say professors Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. Resultantly, relatively weak legislative bodies are formed, which often do not become the epicentre of opposition activity.

Democracy is not about holding elections alone. In fact, democracy is based upon a series of steps, of which holding periodically popular elections is only one step. Holding in-house party elections is another. With a view to strengthening accountability, a tenure is fixed beyond which candidates may not be allowed to contest for the party slots. Given the situation, political parties desirous to stay in power retain their focus on the grooming of party cadres from grass-roots (union councils to tehsil/town councils) to the provincial and national level, rather than being content with a bunch of camp followers. On the other hand, in some third world countries, including Pakistan, individuals inherit leadership just the way one does family heirloom.

In this series of steps, another equally important step is to give the right to the voter to cast his vote for a particular contestant out of those listed on the ballot paper or reject all of them, impelling the political parties to put up alternate candidates. NOTA (None of the Above Available) provision gives this right to the electorate and it has already been incorporated in the election laws of many countries. Experience tells that in the electoral system currently in vogue in this country, a dissatisfied voter does not turn-up for casting his vote. If the NOTA option is provided, perhaps, even reluctant voters would turn up at the booths to cast their votes.

Furthermore, two principles — equality and freedom — are broadly accepted as the basic ingredient of any democracy. These principles imply that all citizens are equal before the law, without any exception, and have equal access to power and that their legal rights and liberties are protected by the Constitution. However, here a question arises “do our political parties allow their cadres equal access to power? In our case, the answer is in the negative. Can a worker, within a party structure, have the opportunity to rise to the top-most slot of the party, i.e. become its chairperson in due course of time?

The election of a migrant bus driver’s son, Sadiq Khan, as Mayor of London and earlier Lady Warsi’s appointment as the Chairperson of the Conservative Party and a cabinet minister for a while in David Cameron’s cabinet reflects on the progress the UK has made in terms of maturity in their political sphere. In India also, BJP’s choice for Narenra Modi (scion of a low caste family) as the country’s prime minister shows that the neighbouring country’s political system has sufficiently matured. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, we remain stuck in the groove of dynastic dynamics and have not progressed from this point over the years. However, words on a piece of paper without implementation lose any standing.

Ideally speaking, democracies must be based on broader participation of the masses. It implies a system that ensures rights to its citizens. These may include civic rights, social, economic, political, educational rights to name a few. If we apply the general principle to Pakistan, we see, in all fairness that democracy has failed to take off in Pakistan. There are many reasons for it. Most notable ones include: weak party structures that strengthen individuals not the institution itself; lack of accountability (both within the parties and externally at the national level) making some individuals more sacrosanct than the law; giving space to certain parties/groups to operate on the basis of sect, religion, ethnicity, etc….

Lack of accountability, lacklustre performance of successive governments and their failure to improve the lot of the common man has disenchanted people with this form of the government. The despair and the notion that nothing will change is diametrically opposite to what democracy should achieve!

Politicians need not necessarily have the vision of a leader to give cogent direction to a nation. But, they get transformed into the exalted role of a leader the moment they become instrumental in changing the conditions of the masses instead of politicising an issue or situation.

Leaders are sometimes born, but usually they are groomed by strong political institutions. If we look at the western democracies, we see many such examples. In those countries, as earlier stated, mainstream political parties have strong and vibrant party secretariats, party foundations and institutions for research and training of leaders.

In Pakistan, we do not have any such arrangement with the result that the whims of the ‘pay-masters” continue to set the tunes. Furthermore, experience tells that absolute power, corrupts absolutely. If we wish to democratise political parties and rejuvenate them with talented and committed people, there is an urgent need to remove their dependence on a few wealthy families.

Alauddin Masood

alauddin masood
The writer is a freelance columnist based at Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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