LACK of democracy within political parties is an issue that Pakistan has been struggling with for the better part of its history. Parties with a national vote bank like the PML-N and PPP never really embraced this notion despite having agreed upon certain procedural requirements within the election rules. While the Election Commission of Pakistan inserted this requirement for elections within parties, the latter treated this as a formality to be completed in letter but not in spirit. Imran Khan’s PTI made a big deal of these sham elections and instituted a system for its internal elections to show it was truly a democratic party and not a family-run enterprise. The one-time electoral exercise led to such a bitter feud within the party that soon everything reverted back to the leader nominating people for various party offices. The PTI’s romance with democracy within its party was short-lived.
It was, therefore, not surprising to hear a PTI lawmaker admitting this fact at a seminar in Islamabad recently. Sher Ali Arbab, an MNA from Peshawar, conceded that democracy within parties, including his own, was a huge challenge. He is right. With the passage of time, the PTI has stopped even pretending that its affairs are managed on any democratic principles. By reverting to this traditional manner of running political parties in Pakistan, it has joined the ranks of the PML-N, the PPP and most other parties. The adverse effects of this undemocratic culture inside these parties are greater than we realise. Such a culture stifles debate, scuttles healthy disagreements and suppresses dissent. It elevates the leader to a position where he is not answerable to the rank and file of his party. It also gives him or her veto power on decision-making and diminishes the role of others. More significantly, it promotes an acceptance of absolute authority and dilutes the essence of democracy. When such a culture reigns within parties, it is difficult to expect them to change their value system within the larger democratic dispensation. It is the ECP’s responsibility to enforce the requirement for elections within parties and to ensure that these are not sham exercises in futility. So far the ECP has taken a lenient view of this deficiency. With a new leadership of the ECP due to be appointed, it is a good opportunity to take stock of the situation as it exists and to strengthen the rules so that we can strengthen democracy.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2019