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The future of our political parties

What do Pakistan’s main political parties have to survive the test of time?

The future of our political parties

Political association in Pakistan may well be described as a “Sentimental Express”. It ferries between romance and reaction. It runs fast. The passengers are passionate. But it has unpredictable stopovers. Some of the passengers get frustrated as it never gets to the destination. They perhaps don’t know that political odyssey is a walk in the wilderness where journey itself is the destination.

The party politics in Pakistan since the founding of PPP in 1967 has changed as much as Islam since Zia and opinion-makers since Twitter: Both have degenerated from sedate and sporadic to quick and vulgar.

In most of the socially, politically, and materially developed countries, the country preceded its political parties. In the case of Pakistan, the country came 42 years after the political party that founded it.

Let’s begin with a question: Why do we need political parties? Many in Pakistan say we don’t need them. After all the country that inspires us the most, the KSA, does not have one.

Saudis aside, we must have at least one political party, for China, our greatest ally here and hereafter, has one. Some say a political party is necessary for democracy. That is not accurate. Again, China…!

Luckily, we have many parties; hundreds of them. To be precise we have 162. To that list, I would add three the real, de facto and the most important neo-parties.

To have a political party, we need some founders, a name, manifesto, manifest anger, some office bearers and members, assumed supporters, actual finances and a leader. In Pakistan, all parties lack two or three of these eight factors. Those thick on a manifesto are thin on membership and finances (the Left parties). Those with wide support and huge finances do not seem to care for a plan.

To have a long, active and prominent life, a political party needs to have a widespread presence, deep organisation, elastic strategy, a set of enticing slogans and ability to deliver on promises of basic services the citizens need the most. That is, justice and jobs, education and energy, safety and security, health and housing, mobility and urban amenities, and freedom of speech and associations. To deliver, the key things a party and its government need are generation and distribution of wealth, knowledge and opportunities. Our main parties have variously and inadequately catered but have largely shown an inability to govern and as such do not have a great future.

In Pakistan, the so-called electorate are the registered voters who elect a party to power. Out of 200 million, we have about 80 million voters. Half of them do not vote, so we have 40 million voters that political parties bank on. Less than two million of these are selectorates — people who influence the electorate and matter the most to winning parties.

There are pet patterns that major parties follow: All rely on small teams, big talk and a favouring COAS.

The PML has heavy reliance on non-elected, right-leaning bureaucrats and technocrats as advisors, and short but cocksure deadlines to overcome critical challenges and turn Pakistan/Punjab into Paris overnight. Such overt reliance alienates the elected MPs. The PML’s selectorates are urban middle class; thus projects like motorways and metros. Unless the PML-N deepens its organisation and shifts reliance on MPs, it won’t be there in the 2023 elections — provided we keep having elections till then.

The PPP is the original ‘Sentimental Express’ that is stalled. It runs high on emotions, slogans, normative ideals of democracy, right legislation that follows no or wrong implementation and is very low on delivery. The integrity of key leaders is suspect and recently was run like a tribe: the trusted, not the competent ones, made to the inner circle. Having been a regular voter and open supporter of the PPP since 1988, it is difficult to objectively analyse ‘my party’.

But going forward, the PPP must move beyond slogans and sentimentality and offer solutions. Internally, it must graduate from nominations to elections in districts and provinces. Bilawal Bhutto will have to run it like a participatory enterprise that offers access and opportunities to millions, not just minions. Provided, he ever gets to run it!

The PTI has deep organisation, popular support and all that a winning party needs. But it has three perils — high anger, borrowed leadership, and a clueless Chairman, who does not seem to have a sound sense of history or future. If he comes to power — I wish he does —, he may badly fail as countries are run by cool heads, large hearts and political elasticity. Not by anger, squeezed eyes and rigidity.

The MQM will survive the recent storm of ‘Indian connections’. It does have a future (in Sindh) but it must say goodbye to Altaf Bhai, violence and forced contributions. Else, the PTI will embrace the MQM supporters who are bound to the party by fear. The ANP will remain a regional progressive party, but needs to walk miles.

The party politics in the name of religion has bleak future. For almost everyone is wearing a sub-social attire of pseudo religiosity; common folks do not want shariat based regulation of intimate lives and choices. And, the mobile phones have caused a subcutaneous amoral revolution which is not reversible.

The left in Pakistan is literally and metaphorically lost. It seems too much organisation and discipline, too exclusive political diction, and too narrow a base of leadership did not let it flourish and be popular. It needs to relax and loosen up to spread and succeed. And I seriously think the future belongs to the city governments as mayors are going to be more important than ministers. Parties that win and run districts will stay and sustain. And the Left has a good chance here.

The national politics in the next 15 years will be deeply influenced, if not outrightly determined, by three neo (read real) parties. Though not parties in the formal legal sense, they will make formal parties win or lose. I call them khaki, hari and neeli parties (hari, green but not eco green; neeli, blue, and blue with hatred of Hindus, Jews and Americans). In fact they are of the same ilk as all swing in a highly coordinated rhythm, the rhythm of a guard of honour.

In 2018, any party that gets the maximum support of the ‘dirty green’ (that’s what we get by oddly mixing khakhi, green and blue) will make to power. Unless we have an inventive ‘religious left’ or a Punjabi progressive party, the PTI seems to be set for the dirty green guard of honour!

Arshed Bhatti

Arshed Bhatti copy
The author, a former civil servant, is a political analyst, and a song writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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