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LAHORE, Nov 14: The launch of a research study here on Wednesday promised to start a much-needed debate about the makeup of the political parties in Pakistan, their preferred roles and their relevance to the people in the country.

“Political Parties in Pakistan; Organisation and Power Structure,” a study put together by Prof Muhammad Wasim and Mariam Mufti, is a Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) project completed in collaboration with The Asia Foundation’s Supporting Transparency, Accountability and Electoral Process in Pakistan Programme (STAEP) and with financial support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The research includes brief notes on a large number of big and not so big parties rounded up with information collected in interviews with politicians. The launching ceremony started with the welcome remarks by LUMS Vice-Chancellor Dr Adil Najam. Mr Najam said LUMS was a public institution and facilitated public dialogue between various stakeholders, including political parties.

Mr Gareth Aicken, country representative of The Asia Foundation, said his organisation had been working in Pakistan since 1954, and was committed to a just and prosperous Asia Pacific. The foundation was working in the areas of governance, gender, economic reforms and development. The STAEP Programme was aimed at building citizen-state relationships and supporting the political parties to be better organised and more responsive to the citizens. In future, The Asia Foundation planned to hold consultation with political parties on the code of conduct and capacity-enhancement of the political parties at the district level with reference to the 18th Amendment.

Prof Muhammad Waseem introduced the research report and identified four major aspects to political parties: leadership, (both charismatic and populist); ‘electable’ heavyweights who bear the burden of election campaigns and carry vote banks in the territorial constituencies throughout the county; party ideologues who represent the conscience and the message of their organisation and organise public meetings; and finally, the institutional-constitutional structure of the parties which causes this shadow on the functioning of political parties.

Altogether, the report has brought political parties back to center-stage of the political system, where the extra-parliamentary forces have been shaping the contours of public policy. This report had put together some relevant information about political parties at a time when they were preparing for elections by word (manifesto), by action (electoral alliances) by fiat (profile building) and the election campaign proper.

Prof Wasim appreciated the efforts put in by Umar Hayat, coordinator for the programme, and Ali Imran from the Asia Foundation, and then invited the panelists to give their first impressions about the study.

PML-N’s information secretary Ahsan Iqbal began by complimenting the researchers before he attempted to answer some of the ‘criticism’ of politicians in the study report. He recalled the role recently played by the political parties in building consensus on some very contentious issues such as provincial autonomy, NFC and Charter of Democracy, and argued that a system allowed to function in fits and starts was bound to run into problems.

Mr Iqbal next turned his attention to defending PML-N, which he placed in the category of parties that followed a liberal de-regulation agenda. The perception about the non-democratic manner in which the parties in Pakistan chose their office-bearers drew a most emphatic response from him. He said the PML-N was committed to having elected office bearers running the party, yet it preferred to have consensus behind the election of its leadership.

MQM’s Raza Haroon sought to root his comments right in the beginning, saying he was not to sure where the start actually lay: in 1947, in 1971, when one half of the country decided to secede, or in 1973, when the Constitution Pakistan is today governed by, was framed.

Mr Haroon then answered his own question by saying the country needed to work by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s philosophy. He criticised the dynastical politics and remarked that while the local government system was a basic to popular rule, amid all this talk about democracy in the country, Pakistan was without a local government for the last many years. Journalist Najam Sethi provided a quick sumup of the demands of politics and politicians in the country right now, and in a scathing direct shot at all politicians, spoke of the disconnect between the elected representatives and the people at large. He said he would have liked to have heard out PPP’s Qamar Zaman Kaira – who couldn’t attend the launch despite having first committed himself, said the organisers -- putting up a defence of his party’s “dismal” rule. Also sorely missing from the podium, Mr Sethi pointed out, was PTI – the organisers clarifying they couldn’t ensure PTI’s presence at the launch despite their best efforts.

PTI’s rise to Mr Sethi’s eye was indicative of people’s desire for change. He linked the perceptions about the fall in PTI’s popularity to the popular impressions that the party was not geared towards bringing the changes it had espoused. He did not agree with Mr Ahsan Iqbal’s assertion that Pakistan now had a conducive climate and that all it needed was good weather conditions – his point informed by a reference to tensions between various institutions and the tenuous link between the rulers and the ruled.

The chair of the launch, Fakhr Imam, ex-speaker of the National Assembly, expanded on Mr Sethi’s remark about the popular disconnect with the holders of power in the country. He focused on the political situation in Balochistan to bring home his point about lack of efficient rule.

Mr Imam also endorsed MQM’s views on local government polls and asked as to what was stopping the governments in the provinces from holding these elections. He spoke in favour of conflict-of-interest legislation and urged the politicians and all others to come out of denial and own up to their mistakes.