Reforming political parties


As our present phase of democratic struggle moves forward, we must debate the flaws in the internal structures of our political parties and whether or not they have the capacity to reform themselves
Our political parties have a long history, going back to the anti-colonial struggle. The social and political movements of that time shaped their ethos and values, which were rooted in ideas of representative government, nationalism, rule of law and constitutional politics. All parties before and after independence clearly spelled out an ideological line, fuzzy though it might be, and a political vision to pursue if and when elected to power.
Another remarkable facet of our political parties is that their founding principles, election manifestoes and declaratory policies accept democracy as relevant and necessary to the realisation of their political aspirations. A great majority of them have participated in democratic struggles at one time or another. The anti-Ayub and anti-Bhutto movements launched by the opposition parties impressively mobilised all sectors of society and maintained internal cohesion and solidarity. A very large number of political activists and leaders have spent many years in jail, suffered torture and have even been murdered in street protests or assassinated by political rivals or governments.
Another impressive thing about our political parties is that they recognise and work within a multi-party framework, form electoral alliances and enter into coalitions in the assemblies. All overt and covert efforts to impose one party rule succeeded to the extent of patronising one party, often through corrupt and illegal means. The parties in the opposition have remained in the arena, faced all kind of manipulations, and bounced back with the turn of political events.
Unlike many other Muslim countries, Pakistan’s politics have been greatly open, allowing all kinds of parties and groups to compete for power, and social and political space. Sometimes this openness is limitless, presenting a picture of anarchy, with hundreds of registered political parties. So far the political parties — religious, secular, and regional — have rejected armed, revolutionary struggle as a means of obtaining political power. The armed resistance by the nationalist parties in Balochistan at present and earlier is of a different kind, primarily reactive and not aimed at toppling a government.
One may reject this aspect of our political heritage with cynicism, as some of us tend to do, by arguing that all politics in Pakistan have been manipulated from outside the political sphere. Perhaps this is true, but there is considerable evidence, which I have sketched above, that political parties have a positive side.
With such a rich political heritage, how can we explain the failure of the political parties to provide us honest, clean and lawful governance when they had power? There are two apologetic explanations of their malfunctioning, which I do not buy.
First, they came to power with informal constraints on what they could do. This is true; but if their leaders, their families and friends could amass enormous wealth through corruption, they had the capacity to deliver something to the masses, which they never used.
Second, they were not allowed to complete their tenure and had to confront a rowdy opposition supported by the invisible and not-so-invisible establishment. Agreed; but the leaders of the two mainstream parties did not act with sagacity and the rational and long-term interest of democracy in launching campaigns against each other and inviting the military to intervene. Who can forget the trucks of sweets distributed in the capital and other cities when the party in power lost the government through presidential dissolution of the assemblies or by the direct take over by the Chief of Army Staff?
As our present phase of democratic struggle, spearheaded by the lawyers’ community supported by political parties on the sidelines, moves forward, we must debate the flaws in the internal structures of our political parties and whether or not they have the capacity to reform themselves.
All major political parties, regional as well as national, are elitist to the core. Landed, tribal and caste-oriented figures dominate the central leaderships of these parties, leaving hardly any room for sharing decision-making with the professional or middle classes. Those who have found some space from these ranks survive on flattery, justifying all the wrongs of their party leaders.
Elitism in the parties leads to another adverse feature: they do not have internal democracy. The political behaviour of leaders at the top of the party hierarchy is autocratic, self-centred and generally self-serving. The decisions they take, the alliances they enter into and the deals they make or do not make represent the core interests of the great leaders.
These leaders have been running the parties more or less as their exclusive domains, as if they were family businesses and not public organisations. Autocracy within the parties has stunted their generic development and has confined the contest for party tickets or places in the party hierarchy to the influential members of our old and new aristocracy of social power and wealth. This has left the parties empty of new energy, progressive vision and the vigour that the middle classes could bring to their ranks.
Finally, political principles are the last things on the minds of our political class. Changing political loyalties, compromising ideological positions and even changing constitutional provisions that they supported earlier are common, and routinely justified as being pragmatic. Being realistic and down-to-earth is something and selling one’s soul is another, and does not fit the definition of pragmatism. This attitude has earned the political parties a bad reputation and lowered their standing in the eyes of citizens. But they are not really bothered about what ordinary folk think about them.
This loss of faith and credibility cannot help us in building our democratic future. In the final analysis, political parties are the ones that would field candidates, organise election campaigns and compete for political power. To win the public’s trust they must reform themselves by opening up for democratic competition from within, reject hereditary leadership and free the parties of the so-called great leaders. The image of indispensability of these leaders, cultivated by the countless sycophants hired for this purpose, won’t help the cause of democratising the political parties.
We can learn from the rich history of party systems in the mature and developing democracies. The lessons we can learn from their success is that democracy as a principle and ideology applies to all forms of political organisations, of which the political parties are the first. While ostensibly striving for restoration of democracy in the country, they cannot seek exceptions to democratic principles in their own internal governing.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.