Revive political parties
Thursday, 28 Aug, 2008 | 11:55 PKT
By I.A. Rehman
ONE of the issues frequently raised by political parties is that the crises of the state and the plight of the people have been aggravated by the failure of political institutions. New institutions have not been developed, it is said, and the institutions created in the olden days have been destroyed.
Political leaders usually do not include political parties in the list of institutions that have decayed. This, perhaps, because of their feeling of guilt. Whenever the matter is broached they attribute the decline of political parties to state repression, especially during authoritarian rule. But no honest political activist will deny that party leaders also have made a large contribution to the process.
For 50 years now political elements have been fighting authoritarian regimes, and more than that among themselves, on the strength of intra-elite alliances and their ability to gather the people in one movement or another. They have done wonders but fostering strong democratic parties does not figure in their accomplishments.
As regards political parties Pakistan has been unfortunate since its very inception. The largest party at independence, the Muslim League, was more an organisation in form than in substance. After the Quaid’s death even respect for form was given up. After a brief experiment separating the party from the government the Muslim League became a permanent maid at the prime minister’s house. Until Iskander Mirza added the making and breaking of political parties to his functions as head of state, whoever became prime minister also became the League chief. The party had little say in the wars of succession that began with the Quaid’s demise or in the management of public affairs.
The other parties in existence during Independence were paralysed after losing out to the Muslim League. When they tried to resurrect themselves, largely in defence of provincial rights, they were easily suppressed. A challenge to authority could be mounted during elections only by loose gatherings of estranged members of the elite and the establishment replied by rigging elections in the western wing. When it failed to do so in the eastern wing it abandoned the formality of elections altogether and eventually preferred praetorian rule to representative government.
For 50 years now political elements have been fighting authoritarian regimes, and more than that among themselves, on the strength of intra-elite alliances and their ability to gather the people in one movement or another. They have done wonders but fostering strong democratic parties does not figure in their accomplishments. The field has been dominated by political outfits that prefer to call themselves movements and spurn democratic elections and regular party structures. Some parties have relied exclusively on periodic elections.
The stark reality is that political parties have been competing with autocratic despots in inventing ever new excuses for denying the people their right to democratic choice. They have been functioning as little more than contractors for seats in elected bodies and waiting for moneyed candidates who can buy tickets for offices that offer the highest possible return on their investment.
Since the state started moving away from its democratic moorings soon after Independence it had no interest in helping political parties consolidate themselves as fully operational democratic machines. Indeed, it drew comfort from the disintegration of political parties. Instead of removing the obstacles to the flowering of democratic organisations, by avoiding restraints on the right to assembly and to dissent and by reducing the cost of electoral contest, among other things, the state has tried to exceed its authority by arbitrarily regulating political parties and their activities.
The first attempt in this direction was made in 1962 when Ayub Khan’s all-out campaign to destroy party-based politics was halted by the assembly elected through his own devices and he reluctantly reconciled himself to the existence of political parties. As a result, the Political Parties Act of 1962 was designed largely to check the founding and functioning of parties that could be assailed, however wrongly, for being foreign-aided or inspired by a foreign ideology.
The first PPP government imposed in the 1973 Constitution only two conditions on political parties — they could not work against the state’s integrity and were required to account for their funds. It kept the Political Parties Act of 1962 in place and amended it only to facilitate action against the parties it considered undesirable. Gen Zia added some conditions for parties desirous of contesting elections including their compulsory registration but this condition was struck down by the judiciary. The quasi-civilian governments that followed Gen Zia showed little interest in strengthening political parties.The Political Parties Order authored by the Musharraf regime does acknowledge that “the practice of democracy within the political parties will promote democratic governance in the country for sustaining democracy” (the excessive use of the word ‘democracy’ in this short sentence could well have been meant to hide aversion to it), but the measure merely prescribes easy standards for parties for participation in elections.
It can be argued that this order of 2002 has inhibited political parties from democratising themselves. All that is expected of them is a party constitution, a list of members, a certificate about election of office-bearers, and a statement of audited accounts. This is easy work for professionals. After meeting these legal obligations political parties tend to believe they have become democratic entities and nothing more needs to be done in this area.
That the political parties were in disarray on the eve of the last general election cannot be disputed. The enforced absence of the heads of the two major parties did matter but that alone could not have rendered these organisations dysfunctional to the extent actually noticed. Their preparation for elections was no more than haphazard improvisation. The change wrought by the people on Feb 18 was without much help from the main political parties. And these political parties, with rare exceptions here and there, have not been heard of since then.
The conventional argument is that when a party comes to power priority has to be given to the fundamental task of managing the state, to meeting the threats of disturbance and turbulence, and party affairs have to be put on the backburner. In practice, governance has essentially meant efforts to undermine all other parties (including allies), or score points over them, and providing for self-aggrandisement by a few. The point that is consistently missed is that the availability of organised party cadres will make governance both easier and better. Such cadres are vitally needed to maintain a living link between the rulers and the ruled.
Throughout the past many weeks party mobilisation has been sorely missed. If the coalition partners had cadres to mobilise a few hundred thousand people the task of restoring the judges and getting rid of Musharraf could have been completed in a shorter period and quite cleanly. So long as political parties are not revived and raised to due strength the democratic experiment will remain vulnerable to disruption by praetorian guards.
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