Analysis: Democracy within parties

—Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Hybridism is an important feature of Pakistani politics, and largely explains the ability of military and civilian rulers to stay in power and justify their rule. They combine elements of democracy and authoritarianism, and present that hybrid as ‘genuine’ democracy

Family-based politics is one of main features of the political system of Pakistan, and also one of the factors adding to its political crises. It is this aspect of Pakistani politics that makes it dysfunctional and causes imbalance between the various institutions of the state. It is also a major source of political confrontations, the likes of which we are witnessing today, as it is the personal interests of the party boss or his vision for his party and the country that determine the party line and its policy orientations. Above all, this affects how politicians understand democracy and rule of law.

All political parties have a dynastic character. This includes the mainstream national parties as well as the ethnic-regional parties. Other, smaller parties that may appear free of the domination of a single family were, and are being, run by individuals in a dictatorial manner.

Pakistan cannot make the transition to democracy without a competitive party system, which fortunately started to develop in the colonial days. Parties are indispensable to how we translate the idea of popular sovereignty into representative governance. It is also true that the political parties of Pakistan, whatever their ideological and policy leanings, have a certain support base without which they could not have survived repeated attempts by the military to fragment and destroy them.

Each Pakistani party has a unique political identity as well as a recognisable ideological orientation, regardless of the degree to which it has faded. The country can be rightly proud of the multiparty structure of its politics, which is also a reflection of the multicultural character of Pakistani society.

However, these parties have not been able to meet the public’s expectations. Students and analysts of Pakistan’s politics generally refer to feudal culture, and family- and caste-based politics to explain political instability, confrontation and the failure of democracy in the country. The main weakness, thus, is the absence of democratic culture within the political parties of Pakistan. Regular military interventions for various reasons are another reason for the country’s enduring political crises, as they disrupted civilian rule and also caused decay of institutions and the political process.

Developing a party system with a good degree of internal democracy could repair the damage caused by military interventions. It is unfortunate that periods of civilian rule in the country under the main political parties have not been very different in attitude and behaviour from the military rulers. Both demonstrated two common traits: personalised rule and hybridism. First, party leaders in power have acted within the party like dictators, taking arbitrary decisions based on their own whims rather than the collective wisdom and opinion of the party rank and file.

Hybridism is an important feature of Pakistani politics, and largely explains the ability of military and civilian rulers to stay in power and justify their rule. They combine elements of democracy and authoritarianism, and present that hybrid as ‘genuine’ democracy. One the one hand, there is freedom of expression, open politics and protection of fundamental rights; and on the other, these freedoms have a marginal influence on decision making, policy formulation and administration. Party leaders of the PPP, the PMLN and the PMLQ have formed governments in the past without embracing democratic principles in running their parties or their governments, and the experience of the ethnic/religious parties is no different.

Parties in Pakistan are thus like family businesses, with the dominant families protecting their interests. This dynastic party system could transform itself like the Congress party in India; this could only happen if leaders felt secure enough to share power at different levels within the party structure and in the different tiers of their governments.

Beyond the party, personal/family domination damages governance, rule of law and democratic culture by reducing the country’s politics to a clash between egos and party interests. If any coalitions do get formed, they are based on political convenience rather than any ideological or policy compatibility. This leads to further destabilisation of the political system.

There are two other important dimensions of the undemocratic political party culture of Pakistan that foment political crisis: regular reneging on political commitments; and betraying pledges made to the electorate. Party leaders behave this way thinking that they can get away with it, since neither state institutions nor the electorate hold them accountable for their failures or misdemeanours.

The present crisis, too, is due to this traditional mindset of the supreme political bosses of the parties, especially those in power at the centre today. The harbour the delusion that they can keep the judiciary subordinate, pack the courts with party loyalists, then use these courts as instruments of political manoeuvring, and attack rival parties’ interests with impunity. This is what has resulted in the ongoing clash between the PMLN and the PPP in Punjab, in particular.

Traditional leaders like the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari and his non-political advisors fail to recognise that Pakistani society has changed. There is, in fact, a generational change reflected in the vision and aspirations of the younger generation and the vastly expanded professional and middle classes; they now see themselves as real stakeholders in the affairs of state and society in Pakistan.

There is now a big gap in the cultural orientation and worldviews of the new Pakistani classes and the old-fashioned political leaders. Rooted in new social realities, there is an emerging democratic coalition that cuts across ethnic, regional and party lines. This movement simply wants a government subservient to the law; whosoever is in power should be constrained by and held accountable under the Constitution.

Victory of this non-partisan social movement may resolve the long-running crises of Pakistani politics, as party leaders may be forced to respect the law and accept constitutional restraints on the exercise of political power, and may realise that running parties like despots and manipulating the political system will only perpetuate confrontations.

Pakistan has entered a decisive phase in its politics, with a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. There is hope, however, that counter-authoritarian forces are stronger than ever before and have gained enough momentum to overcome the old order and the authoritarian party bosses.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

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