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Party leadership

March 15, 2016


The writer is a political and development economist with INSPIRE Pakistan, an initiative that aims to promote progressive ideas.
The writer is a political and development economist with INSPIRE Pakistan, an initiative that aims to promote progressive ideas.

DEMOCRACY cannot work properly without political parties. Strong democracies all have parties since they help train politicians together for national governance. If cricketers trained separately without meeting before games, they will fail. So do politicians without parties. Strong party democracy helps politicians deliver strong state democracy. If the first is weak, so is the second, as Pildat’s recent surveys on party and national democracy show, where both were scored around 45pc by separate expert panels.

Leadership determines party democracy quality. Many Pakistani parties are family-run, eg, PPP and PML-N, even if some posts are nominally assigned to others. Even where leadership is non-familial, eg, in PTI, MQM and JI, top leaders mostly belong to one ethnicity. Hardly any party, regional or national, has genuine all-Pakistan leadership or appeal.

In 2013, most got 90pc-plus of their National Assembly seats from one ethnicity. Only PTI got 60pc of its seats from KP and 30pc from Punjab. But its leadership displays severe ethnic monotony too. Till recently, its top leaders were mostly from Punjab: Imran (chair), Makhdooms Hashmi and Qureshi (president and vice chair), Asad Umar (vice president) and Tareen (secretary).

Asad was the lone source of minor diversity in this star-studded line-up, being a Karachi Punjabi. Thus, even a party strongly desiring national appeal and new politics lacks broad leadership. It even neglects KP here, its main stronghold.

Leadership determines a party’s quality of democracy.

The nature of Pakistani ethnic politics helps explain PTI’s uneven success. Pakistani northern (Punjabi, Pakhtun and Hazarwal) elites dominate its permanent power structures (military and bureaucracy). Thus, their fortunes are untied to ethnic parties and they often vote for parties led by outsiders, eg, PPP in Punjab and PML-N and PTI in KP. Their non-parochialism is not due to moral superiority but overall political dominance.

As dominant groups, they prioritise efficient service delivery, not redressal of natio­nal inequities. Southern groups (Sindhi, Mohajir and Baloch) nurse serious grievances about their pecking orders in the federation and mostly support locally led equity-focused parties despite their weaknesses. Their fortunes are largely tied to such parties given their weak toe-hold in permanent power structures.

The highly charismatic Bhutto and Altaf successfully imposed order on their long squabbling fellow ethnic elites and emerged as sole spokesmen (to use Ayesha Jalal’s term for Jinnah) for Sindhis and Mohajirs. Unlike Altaf, Bhutto smartly simultaneously captured both Sindhi aggrieved consciousness and national support, allowing PPP to win four times federally and deliver much patronage in Sindh. Altaf unsuccessfully tried this two-pronged approach belatedly. Baloch politics is still fragmented, waiting for a strong pan-Baloch leader.

All this influences PTI’s prowess. Despite being Punjab-led, it lags behind well-entrenched PML-N there. Perhaps it retains such leadership to help win all-crucial Punjab. It must realise that if Punjabis, being a non-aggrieved ethnicity, can vote for Sindh-led PPP, they can vote for an all-Pakistan party leadership too.

Despite its lopsided leadership, it succeeded among KP ethnicities since they too are non-aggrieved and the weak role of tribalism and “feudalism” there allows PTI newbies to defeat older politicians. But perpetuating such leadership may soon rightly invoke the fabled Pakhtun ire given that they as its biggest voters deserve more.

But when the PTI bandwagon reaches south, the land of aggrieved ethnicities, its Punjab leadership fails to inspire people. Given severe ethnic gripes, even an all-Pakistan party may fail there. Even breakaway ethnic parties there fail to dislodge reigning ethnic cha­m­­pions. Thus, Mustafa Kamal’s fate, despite his strong mayoral services, remains unclear.

To displace Altaf as the Mohajir sole spokes­­man, he may have to do more than promising good city services and outperform Altaf in articulating Mohajir grievances (some real, some not) for years. Altaf’s slogan of ‘Jeay Mohajir’ fused him within the Mohajir psyche as a ‘messiah’ and allayed their unconscious fears about Mohajir identity, unity and security which they developed over the decades while slowly losing national dominance. Altaf’s psychic hold nixes the allure of Kamal’s flyovers and endless drip feeds about the party’s undoubted ills.

Pakistanis have odd love-hate relationships with these parties. They curse them for their poor work no end, but faithfully re-elect them. Many believe that these parties have descended from Mars to capture Pakistani politics and three years of ruthless accountability and electoral reform under technocratic rule will produce sparklingly clean and honest parties. But parties emerge from and reflect local society. Pakistani parties merely encapsulate perverse local politico-economic patterns which exist in society even in party absence. Thus, parties will only change gradually with society.

The writer is a political and development economist with INSPIRE Pakistan, an initiative that aims to promote progressive ideas.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2016