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Are political parties still relevant?

It is instructive to look at the weakened state of political parties and its causes; to locate these causes in history, within party structures and in external pressures

Are political parties still relevant?

This isn’t exactly an obituary of the political party, which remains the most potent actor in how we understand modern democracy, especially for the purposes of election, but something quite close to that.

In our context, as the third consecutive parliament completes its tenure and elections are less than two months away, some might even be tempted to say, “the political party is dead; long live democracy”. With large scale defections from one party to the other, clearly the political parties are in disarray. It is, therefore, important to look at the weakened state of political parties and its causes. It may be instructive to locate these causes in history, within the structure of the parties, and the external pressures they have to face from extra-parliamentary forces.

There is, of course, the global phenomenon where most political parties now agree to a capitalist form of economy and rely on market forces, thereby reducing the differences between parties on the far left and far right, each having moved close to the centre, and looking more alike than ever before. This is largely true for Pakistan as well where at least two socialist parties — Pakistan People’s Party and Awami League — won elections on the strength of their ideology and later changed tack.

The Awami League changed in the new country while PPP, having ruled for five years in what then was left of or became Pakistan followed by the worst victimisation of a military regime, came to power again in a different era, and found it fit to embrace the market.

But that’s not where the seeds of weakness of political parties lie. Academics have referred to the “overdeveloped” state institutions like the military and civil bureaucracy as opposed to the weak and underdeveloped legislature and political parties that partition bestowed on the newly independent states, including Pakistan. To be fair, India was able to handle this imbalance relatively better than Pakistan; there, the political class gained ascendancy from the word go. Our trajectory was shaky, no doubt, but what we have in the name of political parties today shows we lost a lot on the way.

In a continuing tussle between the civil and military actors in politics, the political party emerged resilient in a way; it was an institution that had no substitute in the power dynamics. Dictators have had to create a party to sustain themselves in power — in each case, a variant of Muslim League, the party that created the country — or make cosy alliances with religious parties — Jamaat-e-Islami in the initial years of Gen. Ziaul Haq and Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal in the case of Gen. Musharraf.

On top of that, we have the unique distinction of a political party coming into existence after a parliament was sworn in (Prime Minister Junejo who turned a non-party based parliament into a Muslim League-dominated one in 1985).

One thing the political parties share in this country since its inception has been the excessive role of the leader in shaping their identity. This may well have diluted the chances of them becoming functional and ideological institutions that remain bigger than the leader. That Muslim League disintegrated after the death of Jinnah did not offer any lesson and the latter parties stayed equally leader-driven or, worse still, became dynastic.

Thus the PPP today is being led by Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto, PML-N by Mian Nawaz Sharif, PTI by Imran Khan, JUI by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, ANP by Asfandyar Wali while MQM stands fragmented in the absence of its supreme leader Altaf Hussain.

Another phenomenon that has characterised the political landscape is what we now know as ‘electables’. The electables had picked parties such as Muslim League and Republican Party in the initial years because they were the essential winners, the local power-holders. These electables were and still are mostly rural-based whereas the political party, or let’s say the ideological party, has not been able to extend its appeal beyond urban areas. This should be considered a failure of the political parties — of not being able to develop a loyal cadre in rural areas that have always been left to the machinations of the local infleuntials.

According to political scientist, Dr Mohammad Waseem, two major parties that emerged in revolt against these ‘electables’ were PPP and PTI. PPP was formed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto along with some ideologues or members of the intelligentsia. “PPP maintained this position from 1967 till 1974 when it started ousting the ideologues and by 1977 it had become a party of the electables. This wave of electables touched PTI in 2013 and now they [the electables] have taken over.”

Broadly, Waseem says, all we are left with now are non-ideological, non-policy parties, and that is the reason why dynasties are required “to keep them together”.

To blame the political parties alone for their failure without taking into account the context in which they had to operate may not entirely be fair. A young person today may not even grasp the political struggles of the teachers, lawyers, journalists, trade and student unions against the establishment in the 1950s and ’60s. A careful look at the political parties contesting the first general election in 1970 and its results — where ideological parties won a major share — may be enough to surprise them.

Henceforth was a concerted attempt by the non-elected state institutions to depoliticise society; the torture, incarceration and prolonged ban on political activity broke the will of the people as much as that of the political parties.

The narrative of the 1990s was engineered in a way that it associated all politics with corruption, germinating seeds of “anti-politics” as the new politics. A party like PTI was thus a logical outcome.

Another decade, another dictatorship, and the political parties were dealt a fatal blow. Today, there is not even a shade of resistance and the political parties have learnt to operate in the little space available, most of them choosing to side with the unelected but substantive political force. And yet they are still vulnerable because other institutions, like the judiciary and media, have come to the aid of the establishment in lowering their status in the eyes of the public.

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In this scenario, what could the political parties possibly do right? If they swear by democracy, they must begin with having democracy within their ranks. They must get rid of the so-called unelected ‘central executive committees’ that are used to nominate party presidents and other office-bearers. They must see to it that there is upward mobility for the workers within the party structure where only people with money and clout are being inducted.

This is what they need to do, to improve politics and to stay relevant.

(This is an edited version of the article which appeared in the print under the headline ‘Relevant or not’)

Farah Zia

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