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Decline of political parties

October 27, 2016

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THE apparent consensus among the major political parties against the democratic structuring of their organisations is one of the main reasons for people’s progressive alienation from democratic politics. It is also strengthening the trend towards an oligarchy of sorts.

The political parties’ rejection of internal democracy has again been revealed by their failure to hold intra-party elections and the manner in which they are sometimes held, ie only to qualify for participation in the general election.

We may begin by taking note of two marked exceptions. The Jamaat-i-Islami has maintained its tradition of electing an emir every five years, and the Awami Workers Party has recently held what should be accepted as a fair election at a representative convention of members. The party now has a new team of president and secretary general.

Two parties, the PML-N and PML-Q, have re-elected their office bearers at conventions that offered little opportunity to party cadres to voice their concerns. At the PML-N convention, the risk of a debate among delegates on any issue was overcome by the party establishment’s decision to permit only a few of its nominees to speak.


The failure to hold intra-party elections has revealed our politicians scant regard for internal democracy.


Of the other mainstream parties, the PPP is steadfastly avoiding organisational elections and the PTI chief has lost his enthusiasm for them as well as his tolerance for the party’s election chief if he has a mind of his own. The MQM is too engaged in a fratricidal conflict between two sets of nominated leaderships to avail itself of the luxury of democratic reorganisation.

In developing countries where no system of checks and balances is provided in the constitution or by convention, and the tradition of operating within the law is weak, the role of political parties to ensure that the executive and the legislature both function responsibly and in the public interest (as defined by the people) is more than ordinarily important.

Today, most of Pakistan’s political parties look like crowds of the party heads’ retainers and errand boys. They may be ordered to hold jalsas and rallies but there is no record of intra-party discussions on the direction the state should follow and how the genius of the people should be utilised in their own interest. The absence of democracy in political parties undermines their ability to establish democratic governance if they come to power.

That Pakistan has never had the benefit of properly functional, democratically constituted political parties has been a permanent theme in the country’s political discourse. The pre-Partition Muslim parties made no claim to be democratic. Even the most popular of them, the Muslim League, followed the principles of democratic organisation only in letter and not in spirit.

Come Independence, international opinion favoured the creation of well-organised political parties that could oversee the functioning of state organs. Pakistan fell in line with this trend and prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan accepted the right of oversight of the Muslim League that was headed by Khaliquzzaman. The experiment failed. Khaliquzzaman was forced to resign and the head of government (prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan) became the head of the party too.

During the charade that followed all heads of Muslim League governments became ex-officio bosses of the party.

The greatest farce in the name of party organisation was played by Ayub Khan’s Convention Muslim League. Anyone who could deposit Rs100,000 as fee from members of the party supposedly enrolled by him became a councillor. The joke at that time was that the party’s membership had exceeded the country’s population.

The parties that challenged the Muslim League hegemony did not have much faith in democratic structures either. Quite a few worked under conveners or convening committees and the task of challenging authoritarian rulers was assigned to movements/ united fronts.

Yet, until the 1970s quite a few parties — such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, National Awami Party, PPP and several leftist groups did consider it necessary to elect their office bearers and formally recognised the need for executive committees and councils. But the party apparatus rarely functioned, especially in the case of parties that came to power. The efforts made by retired air marshal Asghar Khan and Imran Khan some years ago made no dent in the hold of autocratic elements in various parties.

The political parties survived Ayub Khan’s 1962 experiment of a partyless parliament and executive, and Ziaul Haq’s more resolute effort to finish them off. But the latter did succeed in securing two significant changes in national politics. First, the party nominees in legislatures were elevated (in theory) to the status of its executive. Second, these legislators were given money to ensure their continued electability. This meant that instead of representing the people in legislatures and chambers of power the legislators became the government’s agents for keeping the populace quiescent.

The people’s exclusion from the management of the state is nearly complete. The rulers have no use for them except for asking them to cast ballots after every few years in elections that are at best partly fair.

Having freed themselves from the obligation to consult the party rank and file, and to ascertain the people’s aspirations through them, and by relying instead on the legislators, the custodians of power have been moving towards an oligarchy. The matter does not end there.

We are witnessing a strong attempt to stifle the voices of civil society and creation of new legal barriers to the people’s right to assent and dissent. After imposing on the people a terrible tool of oppression in the form of the cybercrime act, the authorities have decided to make the right to information law an instrument to deny information.

It is possible that attempts to destroy the people’s capacity to build up dynamic and democratic political parties will fail, but the cost of the present drift towards making them empty shells will be too great to be viewed with complacency.

Published in Dawn October 27th, 2016