INTRA-PARTY democracy strengthens national democracy. If the first is weak, so is usually the second. Political parties serve three key political functions. The first is mobilisation, ie, developing agendas and coalitions around key social problems. The second is electioneering. The third is governance if they win.
But parties differ widely organisationally and agenda-wise. Organisationally, they differ first in whether their leadership and decision-making is personalised or bureaucratised. Personalised parties revolve around a charismatic personality and often become dynastic. Bureaucratised parties elect their leadership based on merit. Another organisational difference relates to their structures. Some parties have a mass-based structure with deep roots into their respective constituencies while others have skeletal structures which inhibit their ability to mobilise their constituencies significantly.
Agenda-wise, parties are either particularistic or universalistic. Particularistic parties focus on a limited number of issues, geography or population groups. The second agenda-related aspect pertains to whether the party focuses primarily on policies or patronage distribution.
Parties improve when society demands merit.
Parties in mature democracies usually have bureaucratised leadership, democratic governance, mass structures, universalistic agendas and policy-based appeal. In contrast, most parties in South Asia have personalised leadership and decision-making, skeletal structures and patronage focus. It is argued by pro-democracy analysts that with uninterrupted democracy and time, these parties will become more like those in mature democracies.
But experience reveals the startling reality that major parties in Pakistan are actually becoming worse or at best are stagnant. Jinnah’s Muslim League was a far better party than the N-League. Today’s PPP is a pale reflection of the ideological PPP of the late ‘60s. The MQM has become more mired in crime with time and lost its earlier organisational flair. The PTI has embraced dodgy politicians while railing against them.
The situation regionally is bad too and the quality of Pakistani parties is in line with regional trends. Nehru’s Congress was far better than the anaemic Congress existing today. The BJP has become more exclusionary and has been rocked by sleaze scandals. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has faded away. The same is true in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Nor are there any signs that this trend will be reversed soon regionally. Thus, time alone will not deliver stronger parties.
Big parties reflect the priorities and constraints of large segments of the populace. In developing states, the populace can be divided into three segments: those that thrive mainly on merit and education (the middle class); those that don’t need merit as they rely on underhand tactics to get rich (traditional elites); and those who can never attain merit due to poor public education (the poor). Those who don’t need merit trap those who can never attain merit in patronage links to win elections, to the dismay of those who thrive solely on it.
The quality of parties only improves when a large segment of the populace demands merit. So if the quality of parties is decreasing, does it mean the merit-oriented segment of the populace is shrinking? Not really. To grasp this we must first analyse why the pre-freedom parties had higher quality. They were pursuing freedom and there was no certainty they would get power. Thus, traditional politicians, who look for immediate power and money, were not attracted to them and often supported colonial powers, allowing visionary leaders to control those parties. But once they attained freedom and power, traditional politicians swamped them and edged out principled politicians, leading to an erosion of party quality.
But the picture is not totally bleak. South Asian economies have expanded as has the proportion of the middle class. So, we do see parties emerging that represent this group, eg, PTI and AAP. But they face a double jeopardy. Their constituencies are still not big enough for them to win nationally. If they stick to merit, they lose. Faced with defeat, they adopt more traditional politics to compete with traditional parties. But they struggle to beat the latter in their own game and risk alienating their middle-class voters in doing so. The PTI is currently facing this double jeopardy.
Middle-class parties and their middle-class supporters also have a simplistic grasp of social complexities. They also struggle to link with the poor, whom they look down upon as useless illiterates. Consequently, they fail to deliver effective and meaningful reform agendas and develop large, winning coalitions. One must accept the reality that our political parties emerge from our society and reflect its realities. There are no shortcuts to improving their quality beyond slow gradual change in society.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2018