All the king’s men

Published February 16, 2024

KING’S parties — political parties believed to have been created and nurtured by unelected forces — have a long and chequered history in Pakistan.

While some parties have developed a genuine popular following, other projects have fizzled out rather quickly. Three king’s parties suffered the latter fate in last week’s elections.

The Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party, constructed by assembling PTI deserters, was being touted as the next big thing, particularly in Punjab. Yet this prediction failed spectacularly as it managed only two National Assembly seats, also putting in a dismal performance in Punjab. Chastened by the rout, IPP supremo Jahangir Tareen retired from politics. One wonders if the IPP will survive till the next election cycle.

The PTI-Parliamentarians did worse, winning no NA seats, while the Balochistan Awami Party, created by the powers that be in 2018 and comprising mostly ex-PML-N members, was also humbled in the polls.

As mentioned, cobbling together king’s parties is not a new phenomenon. For the longest time, the name of the Muslim League — Pakistan’s grand old party — was used by military strongmen, including generals Ayub Khan and Zia, to form parties that could give their projects a civilian face.

Gen Musharraf patronised the PML-Q in 2002, carving it out of PML. But whereas the party of the Sharifs has survived, the Q-League is not a potent political force. Today, there are countless factions of the Muslim League, many of them the products of military rule, or one-man parties. In other instances, electoral alliances were carved out to keep popular parties in check, such as the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in 1988.

Yet some parties have earned their democratic stripes, despite being products of dictatorship. The PML-N is a prime example; Nawaz Sharif began his political journey in the Zia era, but today, has a genuine following. Other than parties custom-built by the gentlemen in Rawalpindi, other political forces, while not being the king’s men, have served the purpose at critical junctures.

The MQM is one example, as it has done the bidding of the establishment at various times, and been rewarded with ‘heavy’ mandates in Karachi. The PPP also played ball with the powers, particularly in the turbulent 1990s. These alliances with unelected forces — while serving the short-term interests of these parties — have done long-term harm to Pakistani democracy.

The only way to stave off the continuous crises that afflict Pakistani politics is for powerful quarters to stop creating and patronising political parties, and to let representatives genuinely elected by the people chart the future course of this country.

Inorganic creations have short shelf-lives and limited appeal, and despite widespread manipulation of the system, are rejected by voters. Only those political forces thrive that either turn away from their creators, or look only to the people for legitimacy.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2024

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