Dr. Niaz Murtaza
Executive Director, INSPIRING Pakistan
Democracy cannot work properly without political parties. Strong democracies all have parties since they help train politicians together for national governance. If cricketers trained separately without meeting before games, they will fail. So do politicians without parties. Strong party democracy helps politicians deliver strong state democracy. If the first is weak, so is the second, as PILDAT’s recent surveys on party and national democracy show, where both were scored around 45% by separate expert panels.
Leadership determines party democracy quality. Many Pakistani parties are family-run, e.g., PPP and PML-N, even if some posts are nominally assigned to others. Even where leadership is non-familial, e.g., in PTI, MQM and JI, top leaders mostly belong to one ethnicity. Hardly any party, regional or national, has genuine all-Pakistan leadership or appeal. In 2013, most got 90%+ of their NA seats from one ethnicity. Only PTI got 60% of its seats from KP and 30% from Punjab. But its leadership displays severe ethnic monotony too. Till recently, its top leaders were all Punjabis: Imran (Chair), Makhdooms Hashmi and Qureshi (President and Vice Chair), Asad Umer (VP) and Tareen (Secretary). Asad was the lone source of minor diversity in this star-studded line-up of Punjabi male figures, he being a Karachi Punjabi! Thus, even a party strongly desiring national appeal and new politics lacks broad leadership. It even neglects KP here, its main stronghold!
The nature of Pakistani ethnic politics helps explain PTI’s uneven success. Pakistani northern (Punjabi, Pakhtun and Hazarwal) elites dominate its permanent power structures (military and bureaucracy). Thus, their fortunes are untied to ethnic parties and they often vote for parties led by outsiders, e.g., PPP in Punjab and PML-N and PTI in KP. Their non-parochialism is not due to moral superiority but overall political dominance. As dominant groups, they prioritize efficient service delivery, not redressal of national inequities. Southern groups (Sindhi, Mohajir and Baloch) nurse serious gripes about their pecking orders in the federation. They mostly support locally-led ethnic parties advocating for collective ethnic rights despite their weaknesses in service delivery, corruption and violence. Issues of ethnic group identity, security and unity are as important for these groups as service delivery issues. Their fortunes are largely tied to such parties given their weak toe-hold in permanent power structures. The highly charismatic Bhutto and Altaf successfully imposed order on their long squabbling fellow ethnic elites and emerged as sole spokesmen (to use Ayesha Jalal’s term for Jinnah) for Sindhis and Mohajirs. Unlike Altaf, Bhutto smartly simultaneously captured both Sindhi aggrieved consciousness and national support, allowing PPP to win four times federally and deliver much patronage in Sindh. Altaf unsuccessfully tried this two-pronged approach belatedly. Baloch politics is still fragmented, waiting for a strong pan-Baloch leader.
All this influences PTI’s prowess. Despite being Punjab-led, it lags well-entrenched PML-N there. Perhaps it retains such leadership to help win all-crucial Punjab. It must realize that if Punjabis, being a non-aggrieved ethnicity, voted for Sindhi-led PPP, they can vote for an all-Pakistan party leadership too. Despite its lopsided leadership, it succeeded among KP ethnicities since they too are non-aggrieved and the weak role of tribalism and “feudalism” there allows PTI newbies to defeat older politicians. But perpetuating such leadership may soon rightly invoke the fabled Pakhtun ire given that they as its biggest voters deserve more.
But when the PTI bandwagon reaches south, the land of aggrieved ethnicities, its Punjab leadership fails to inspire people. Given severe ethnic gripes, even an all-Pakistan party may fail there. Even breakaway ethnic parties there fail to dislodge reigning ethnic champions. Thus, Mustafa Kamal’s fate, despite his strong mayoral services, remains unclear. To displace Altaf as the Mohajir sole spokesman, he may have to do more than promising good city services and outperform Altaf in thunderously articulating Mohajir gripes (some real, some not) for years. Altaf’s guttural slogan of Jeay Mohajir fused him within Mohajir psyche as a Messiah and allayed their unconscious fears about Mohajir identity, unity and security which they developed over the decades while slowly losing national dominance that they enjoyed in the 1950s. Altaf’s psychic hold nixes the allure of Kamal’s flyovers and endless drip feeds about MQM’s undoubted ills.
Pakistanis have odd love-hate relationships with these parties. They curse them for their poor work no end, but faithfully re-elect them. Many believe that these parties have descended from Mars to capture Pakistani politics and three years of ruthless accountability and electoral reform under technocratic rule will produce sparklingly clean and honest parties. But parties emerge from and reflect local society. Pakistani parties merely encapsulate perverse local politico-economic patterns which exist in society even in party absence. Thus, parties will only change gradually with society.
The writer is a political and development economist firstname.lastname@example.org
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