“Parties of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” (John Stuart Mill)
Political parties play a vital role in the overall development of a country. In fact, they are sine qua non for a truly democratic process in particular, and development in general. In a democratic society, political parties raise the voice of the masses. They are the best medium through which people put their demands before the incumbent government. Well-disciplined and organized political parties are the strength of democracy.
In a multi-ethnic society like Pakistan, having a multi-party political system is almost inevitable. There are, hence, a large number of political parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan but the role they have been playing in the political culture of the country has not been up to the standards expected from them as major stakeholders in the country’s democratic system. Instead of bringing about integration and solidarity, they promote disintegration, widen gap between the masses and the elite and generate hatred in the society. There is a pressing need to bring reforms in the functioning of political parties in order to strengthen democracy and the process of development.
Insofar as the role of well-organized political parties in a country is concerned, the one of foremost importance is to invigorate the democratic process. In this role, opposition parties in the national parliament form a shadow cabinet so as to criticize the government policies, if those are not in the interest of state and the people. On the other side, the majority party forms its own cabinet to perform different functions. They don’t clash; rather they try to make the most of all proposals and suggestions put forward. In truly democratic political parties, there are, thus, the elements of tolerance, adaptability, responsibility and adjustability – the true spirit of democracy.
After briefly discussing the role of well-disciplined and organized political parties, let’s now have an overview of the political parties in our country. As we know, there are a large number of political parties in Pakistan, and every political party has, and promotes, its own agenda and ideology. There is a multi-party system prevalent in Pakistan with major political parties namely: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement – Pakistan (MQM-P) and other regional parties. To understand the role of these parties in Pakistani democratic setup, it is imperative to know the features of these parties.
The well-known scholar Pierre Lafrance describes two kinds of political parties in Pakistan: caring and steering. According to him, caring parties are those that work for the public welfare. They believe that government should strive for the welfare of the people. They include educated people, workers and peasants into their folds. In Pakistan, according to Lafrance, PPP has been one such example.
Steering parties, in the view of Lafrance, are those that drive the government effectively. They emphasize on mega-projects and encourage modernization and privatization. Such parties comprise middle and industrialists classes. However, here Lafrance’s assertion seems flawed, because sometimes steering political parties work for the welfare of the people and caring parties do mega projects. For example, PPP has the credit for establishing Pakistan Steel Mills.
But, in Pakistan, when a party gets majority, it tends to become and absolutist and dictatorial government and it cannot digest criticism by the opposition parties. In unceasing political wrangling, the government keeps on trying to disparage the opposition by terming it an enemy of the country and also its development. On the other hand, the opposition gets engaged in an unrelenting effort to topple the government by terming its policies an instance of enmity towards the common people. So, in Pakistan, we see that majority is absolute majority and opposition is absolute opposition.
Furthermore, political parties in Pakistan have failed to develop a democratic culture; they call themselves democratic, but in reality the spirit of democracy solely lacks in them. Intra-party elections are mere eyewash as they are held just for fulfilling the requirement of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Political parties in Pakistan are, in essence, authoritarian in nature.
Moreover, in Pakistan, almost every political party has a different ideological background. Although multi-party system suits Pakistan owing to its multi-ethnic structure, yet it may add fuel to the already burning fire of provincialism and regionalism. They instil the venom of hatred in the minds of ordinary people and thus keep on polarizing the society. This, ultimately, tears apart the very social and political fabric of society.
Dynastic and hereditary politics is yet another critical issue in Pakistan. Most of the political parties are under the control of specific families and the leadership of those is automatically inherited by the next generation. PPP, PML-N, ANP, JUI(F) can be quoted as the most pertinent examples in this regard.
Another very interesting and fascinating feature of political parties in Pakistan is ‘alliance politics’. Parties blatantly opposed to each other during the election campaign may enter into alliances to defeat a major party. We can see such example of alliance in the form of ‘PNA’ in which nine political parties collated against the front-runner Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
In conclusion, it can be said that to promote democracy and democratic culture in Pakistan, there is a pressing need to bring reforms in the structure of political parties. They should provide training to their members in the art of politics. Intra-party elections should be held regularly and they should be ‘elections’ in truest sense of the word. There is a crying need also to eliminate the hereditary leadership in political parties and give chance to new, energetic and visionary people, who have the true qualities of leadership, to come forward.