Sheikh Rashid Ahmed seen here planting a resounding kiss on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cheek long before he moved on to form his own party. The story of politics in Pakistan is riddled with such stories. - Photo courtesy: White Star Photo
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed seen here planting a resounding kiss on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cheek long before he moved on to form his own party. The story of politics in Pakistan is riddled with such stories. - Photo courtesy: White Star Photo

POLITICAL parties are considered central to statecraft, and they shape attitudes, beliefs and values of the political culture to support the working of the political system. When it comes to Pakistan, the first political party was launched long before the country actually got its independence in 1947. The establishment of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) in 1906 was a Muslim expression of identity. The rationale behind forming the League was the failure of the Indian National Congress (INC) to adequately represent Muslims.

The credibility and acceptance of the well-knit AIML increased under the leadership of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. His political wisdom, unflappability, determination, unwavering commitment and sincere leadership gave hope and confidence to a depressed community. Jinnah was able to communicate his vision clearly, to relate to the masses with empathy, and to steer the AIML through rocky patches. He possessed an extra je ne sais quoi as well as a spark to ignite the inspiration of the masses.

The AIML’s freedom movement gained strength once the British recognised the Muslim community as a separate political identity. Muslims were allowed a separate electorate under the Minto-Morley reforms. Attempts were made to clear the way for a parliamentary democracy under the Montague-Chelmsford reforms and, after a series of constitutional and political developments, the provincial autonomy demanded under Jinnah’s 14 points was granted through the Government of India Act, 1935, which is considered a high watermark in the process of democratisation in the subcontinent.

The AIML participated in the 1937 elections and learnt a great deal about electoral politics. Three years later, in 1940, the party transformed itself into a mass movement and orchestrated the demand for a separate country. Once the goal of a separate homeland was achieved, it again changed into a political party named the All-Pakistan Muslim League (APML).

Dynastic politics and factionalism reflect a worsening dynamic within Pakistani political parties but Dr Shuja Mahesar believes that we may have reached a stasis in our democratic evolution.

Decline of the League

After the creation of Pakistan, the party leadership got engaged in nation-building activities and the organisation itself thus received less attention than it deserved. As a result, the League’s reputation began to decline. The need was soon felt for a reorganisation, and the task went to Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, who naturally did not have the flair or the capacity of Jinnah.

The creation of various factions in the provinces resulted in further degeneration. The party missed the opportunity to implement land reforms, and created confusion about foreign policy. However, efforts were made to build democratic institutions and the constituent assembly was given the task to frame a constitution for the new country, which came almost a decade after its birth in 1956. The party was unable to keep the pre-partition momentum and its image took a nosedive in the years ahead.

Rise of the contenders

The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), a competitor of the Muslim League, had also been active in the political battleground. It was founded by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi in 1941. After the creation of Pakistan, it split into two main organisations: Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. It continued to work as a political party based on religious ideology.

The JI largely drew its inspirations from the thoughts and beliefs of its founder. The election manifesto of the party sought social, economic and political rights. It was not opposed to modern techniques and methods of production, but its policy on the factors of production did not make it any different from the other political parties. It ensured the sanctity of private property and remained concerned about the way these properties were acquired. The party was an advocate of state intervention in the moral and spiritual realm rather than in the economic sphere.

Another contender, the Awami League, was founded in 1949. Its popularity grew rapidly, and the Six Points of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman started being treated as political scripture among its support base. The party began promoting ethnic politics with the rise of Bengali nationalism.


Over the 1950s and 1960s, the politics of the country revolved around identity, and thus demands for the protection of languages and cultures of various regions became major points of agenda for nationalist parties. These demands were fuelled by the centralisation of power and denial of provincial autonomy under the One Unit scheme launched in 1955. The scheme was described as a means of integration, but it proved counterproductive in the sense that it created the ethnic divide which later caused the dismemberment of the country.

Mainstream political parties, like the League, were unable to sensibly address ethnicity and language controversies. Nationalism and provincialism grew out of the political uncertainty and economic disparity created by the ruling elite, who preferred bureaucratic solutions over political dialogue as a method of conflict resolution.

During the 1960s, the bureaucracy had played a political role and was a major collaborator in the military regime led by Gen Ayub Khan. The civil service established its dominance in much the same way the colonial bureaucracy had monopolised power. It meddled in politics and sabotaged efforts to strengthen democracy at the grassroots level.

In the absence of strong local government institutions, elite service officers exercised huge administrative, judicial, financial and political powers. However, they were unable to positively contribute to the development of institutions. Also, they were not too keen to implement reforms which could radically change their status and power in society.

A new start

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a shrewd politician, was able to read the situation clearly, and formed the Pakista People’s Party (PPP) in 1967 with the help of political thinkers like J.A. Rahim and Dr Mubashir Hassan.

The manifesto of Bhutto’s party was a blend of Islamic socialism and egalitarianism. It introduced a new political culture and generated fresh political ideas that attracted a large number of people, resulting in electoral success at the 1970 elections. A new Constitution was framed under the PPP in 1973, and it was adopted with parliamentary consensus. The Constitution has survived two military regimes and has been a source of political stability for nearly a half-century.

However, the party was criticised for its inability to become internally democratic and for making compromises to avoid consequences unacceptable to the leadership. It made several amendments to the Constitution to deal with one threat or the other to the government.

The party also introduced civil service and land reforms, but they were not implemented owing to political instability. His government faced bitter opposition from the National Awami Party (NAP), which was banned in 1975.

In 1977, the party again secured an impressive victory against the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), which was an electoral arrangement involving all the key opposition parties. There were allegations of electoral rigging, and soon there were wheel-jam strikes across the country.

The Zia era

The lingering turmoil on a national scale provided Gen Ziaul Haq, the army chief, an opportunity to intervene. Bhutto was taken into ‘protective custody’, then sent to jail and finally to the gallows. Zia made changes to the Constitution and introduced new laws with no regard for Pakistan’s social complexities.

Matters began to change when Gen Zia started manipulating religion as a political tool to extend his stay in power. The ‘religionisation’ of politics produced an unstoppable wave of radicalisation in the country. The social structure underwent major upheaval due to religious and political intolerance, which continues to be reflected in our religio-political parties today.

In 1981, the PPP brought together multiple parties together on the platform of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) to challenge the Zia regime. Political workers were arrested, tortured and killed at various places.

In 1986, the PPP got a new lease of life when Benazir Bhutto returned to the country from abroad to a massive welcome in Lahore. She led the party in difficult times and gradually carved out a place in the corridors of power.

Musical chairs

Benazir became the first woman prime minister of Pakistan – indeed, of the entire Islamic world – after her party’s victory in the 1988 elections. Her first tenure, however, was cut short when president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, using powers vested in him under Article 58(2)(B) of the Constitution, dismissed the National Assembly. This was the first time he had used the said clause, but he would use it again in 1993 to send Nawaz Sharif home.

Within eight years, from 1988 to 1996, the country went to the polls four times. It was as if we were compensating for all the elections that we had not held in our history. These elections threw up four governments; two each headed by the PPP and the Nawaz faction of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

In political terms, the concoction of Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) remains the most remarkable factor; remarkable for in later years it exposed the scale and dynamics of the machinations that go behind the curtains to have a ‘government if choice’.

After the flurry of elections, however, came the fourth military intervention when Gen Pervez Musharraf sent the PML-N government packing after the Kargil episode.


The 9/11 attacks significantly affected global politics. For Pakistan, it meant significant challenges as well as opportunities for the military ruler to prolong his rule. On the back of success in a referendum, which was obviously a technique he had learned from his predecessor Zia, he went about his business, creating newer titles like PML-Q and PPP Patriots to provide his parliament legitimacy. The religious parties for the first time formed an alliance of their own and called it the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA).

The biggest shock during the Musharraf era, however, was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 when she returned to the country yet again to lead her party in the 2008 elections. Her husband Asif Ali Zardari subsequently took charge and led the PPP to electoral victory. It formed an alliance with the Awami National Party (ANP) and formed a government that became the first in national history to complete a five-year term. That it took the country more than six decades to hit that landmark is in itself a potent indicator of what and how things have been like in the political spectrum.

A new player

The PML-N secured a majority in the 2013 elections. However, the greatest rise in political stocks was noticed for the Pakistan Tehreek i-Insaf (PTI), which had spent considerable time as a non-entity but had been gathering support for some time. It formed the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and started eyeing Islamabad from there. It did get there after achieving success in the 2018 elections, but only after it brought quite a few independent candidates, and entered into alliances with political and ideological opponents, like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the PML-Q.

The latest political nomenclature in the country is the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) which is a combination of political forces trying to counter the PTI narrative. As the country celebrates 75 years of its independence, political uncertainty remains the key word in its national narrative.

Political parties are central to statecraft, and it is, therefore, a travesty that we not only have an inept political system, but a looming crisis of leadership. Most parties remain reluctant to promote intra-party polls, which discourages the emergence of new leadership.

Political parties generally have three objectives: secure public support, capture power, and deliver services to the people as per the aspirations of the voters and supporters. In Pakistan, political parties are more focussed on the first two objectives and less concerned about the last one, which is actually more important for their survival.

Debate on public issues, constructive criticism and political tolerance needs to be promoted. Likewise, indecency in political behaviour, needless political confrontation, and a culture of character assassination rampant in our prevailing political culture must be discouraged through available democratic, legal and media forums.

Further, respect for the principle of constitutionalism is a collective responsibility of all political parties. The parties must demonstrate courage and stop any major or minor constitutional violation by the power elite.

The author is Director, Pakistan Study Centre, University of Sindh, Jamshoro.



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