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Strengthening democracy and political parties – II

The military often takes over power swiftly and comfortably without any meaningful resistance either during or after the process of the take-over. Prime ministers are put behind bars and sent to the gallows through manipulating the judicial process. Military rule is legitimised by referendums and judicial validations.

The usurper is easily given powers to amend the constitution. One of the many reasons for this is a weaker base of political parties in terms of membership cadre and organisation. Except for Pakistan People’s Party which has a large political base, most other parties have a weaker political base. Almost all political parties are dominated by individuals and families. The electoral process also throws up entrenched wealthy individuals, strengthening status quo and thwarting social and political change. In most parties, there is a narrow core of formal members, around which is a large number of political supporters. Ironically political parties’ leadership is reported to be even discouraging local cadre in launching membership campaigns, perhaps in vain attempt to maintain control of the party or entrenched groups or perhaps thwarting organised take over.

Ironically, there is a typical trend to political induction of party leadership. An aspiring and ambitious politician is first discovered and co-opted by the military rulers. Military rule gets legitimacy and wider political base through such inductions and the individual power, pelf and wealth increases by various transfers and favours made for such co-optees. Typically and eventually, the fate of military dictator goes down after having ruled for an average period of a decade. Dichotomy and contradictions develop amongst the political and military leaders and the co-opted joins the opposition and the democratic forces, suffers for a period in the form of jail or exile and thus gets legitimised and become a bona fide political leader.

The two most organised political parties in the country are MQM and Jamaat-i-Islami. PPP’s organisation is based more on sympathy syndrome, as most of the Bhutto family has been eliminated through legal and illegal murder. PML (N) appears to be too slow and lazy busy in eating Nehari and Paya. Lahore appears to be their obsession and beloved. They appear to lack the current and passion to organise. As an indicator, visit their website and compare it with PTI’s. However, in the case of JI, their religious fundamentalism restricts their countrywide appeal. MQM, despite its current efforts, could not yet become a countrywide party. However, if the major political parties are organised on the lines of MQM and JI, it would not be too easy for a truckload of Brigade 101 troops to attack the Prime Minister’s House and arrest him and control the TV. Even if they manage to do so, an organised political cadre would have been able to cause massive campaign and unrest to unseat the usurpers. Tehrir Squares are not mounted.

Z A Bhutto was executed among unexplainable silence of the masses and supporters and Nawaz Sharif was jailed and exiled with comfortable ease by the two respective military dictators. Both the PPP and PML-N, more so the latter, have suffered due to the lack of an organised large political cadre as is found in most democracies of the world. PML-N should not be afraid of new membership. They should shun their fear and scepticism of the people and masses. A shift towards middle-class power may not be able to unseat the top leadership in the short run, which is what matters for political control. In the long run, it would reward them with strength, appeal and vitality.

The common impression is that political parties in Pakistan discouraged general membership, and prefer to have “core workers”. The possible reason for this is the apprehension that the party may be hijacked by some “interest groups” who may manage to mobilise general party workers who may not be as ideologically committed to parties’ mission, characters and ideology, as core workers would be. A more critical reason is cited also: political parties are a means to extract social and economic advantage, on the part of all and sundry, lower or higher levels. Naturally, the existing members of the club would not like to so widely and thinly distribute the benefits. Nevertheless, a large pool of workers is required to maintain party organisation and win elections. Thus there is a varying level of motivation to induct party members and launch membership campaigns. Reliance is usually made to induct members through personal contacts. The ambivalent attitude is also reflected by a lack of proper membership registers and databases of party members, and accurate statistics thereof, as we find this in established democracies.

Admittedly, the political participation in most European countries has come down from a high level in the 1960s to a much reduced level in 2005. In the 1960s in Austria and Scandinavian countries, political participatory rate used to be between 15-25 percent, which came down to a level of 5-20 percent in 2005. In the UK, participation rate in 1960 was 10 percent and came down to 2 percent in 2005. In Italy, it came down to 4 percent from 12 percent and in Germany, the rate increased by 4 percent in the 1980s and came down to 3 percent; in Netherlands, from 9 percent to 3 percent. A general average for Europe can be taken as 4 percent that is 4 political workers out of every 100 electorates (voters). In India, with a population of over 1.0 billion and 671 million registered voters, there are 60 to 80 million estimated party workers, which is more than 10 percent of the electorates.

In Pakistan, at a participation rate of 4 percent, there should be a total number of 4-5 million political parties’ membership ie, both PPP and PML (N) and now PTI should have 1.0 million strong party workers each or slightly more. As against these numbers, the total political party workers in Pakistan may not exceed 500,000 mark. PPP has 20 percent (200,000) of the required number and PML 10 percent (100,000) of the required number. PTI is fast expanding its membership base and has probably larger membership base than that of PML (N), although lesser than that of PPP. By comparison in India, BJP had 30 million workers in 1980, Shivsena 5 million and Congress 15 million. Without a strong worker base, the political parties cannot mobilise public opinion and much less resist military coups. Military dictator goes away only when general discontentment against him and his policies becomes too widespread. Recent success of lawyers’ movement is a case in point, proving what an organised force can achieve in the context of popular support. If democracy is to be strengthened and re-enforced and military coups resisted and repulsed, political parties will have to strengthen their cadre by; a)enhancing the numbers; b)training and motivation; c)indoctrinating the workers with party ideology and programme.

We have mentioned earlier that the political structure and organisation in Pakistan suffers from a narrow social base wherein landed persons dominate and monopolise power. However, the influence of private money could be partially balanced by public funding of political parties. There are a large number of persons employed by the government in education sector; mostly teachers, lecturers, and professors. They are barred from entering politics because they are government servants. Private sector is also present in education, but in terms of numbers their count is much less. Admittedly there is no bar on their political role.

An important constraint on individuals aspiring to enter politics is availability of time, even if money is provided for their election campaign and other political activities from other sources such as public funds. In the US and other democracies, lawyers have significant presence in politics and the elected institutions such as parliament and senates; the reason being the professional flexibility. A lawyer can plan and apportion his time more flexibly than those employed by the private and public sector companies and institutions. A lawyer can have his private practice in law firm, engage in full time politics, same as a member and come back to his profession with more distinction, value and acceptability by the legal profession and his former or potential employers. In Pakistan, most lawyers have kept away from politics, fallaciously assuming that practice of law is to be independent from politics. There is a sizeable exception. Quite a few prominent lawyers are politicians too as well but the bulk stay away from politics.

There is a similar strain of argument and refrain among the teaching community. They argue that politics is bad and would be potentially divisive and would caste negative shadow on educational activities, and peace and harmony therein. They may have a point there. However, the positive impact of the teaching communities’ involvement in politics and representation in parliament are potentially very significant. It would diversify the social base of politics, diluting the preponderance of a few. Politics would benefit from the individuals who are highly specialised and knowledgeable in science, economics, engineering, health etc. As to the divisiveness of politics, that is already there. People and teachers have their ideologies and political views and even informal or sometimes formal and unannounced affiliations.

Fortunately and unfortunately teachers have time. Educational institutions do not open for more than 150 days in a year. There are all kinds of leaves, strikes, and voluntary closures due to law and order situations. Time is a great resource which could be put to public service. Democratic governments and political parties should seriously investigate about encouraging and involving teachers into active politics by; i) removing legal and employment conditions and constraints against their political participation; ii) Provide for paid and unpaid leaves for teachers and professors for the period of their assignments and elections in the parliament and absorb them back once they return. Reportedly Turkey, a not very egalitarian state, relaxed constraints on university professors some entering politics and running for public office, with remarkably positive and softening impact on Turkish political system, so much dominated by the military.

FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE TO POLITICAL PARTIES While top leadership and its continuity may be indispensable for most parties, there is no justification of monopoly of landed aristocracy over the political party. Tickets for assembly memberships are awarded based on district power base, which largely comes from land power. Overall, party finances also come from this core group. If political parties are provided public funding (government financial support), the influence of this typical core group (hanger-ons, mafia, feudal and apple-polishers) would be gradually and partly replaced by new forces emanating from the lower and middle classes.

In many democratic countries of the world especially in South America, Japan, Canada and Europe funding to political parties is common. In Anglo-Saxon countries including India, this tradition is not there and the reader may feel some oddity about it. Normally, public funds are given on the basis of vote caste in the elections; in Germany, about 10 euros per vote on the average, as straight transfers to political parties’ central funds; in Canada 5-9 dollars per vote and in Japan 250 yens (250 PKR) per vote are given to political parties. This public subsidy transforms to 33-50 percent of total operating budget of political parties. In Pakistan such support maybe differentiated and targeted to encourage reforms in political parties. The following criteria and targets maybe kept in view:

1. Number of voters.

2. Number of workers.

3. Direct financial support to eligible candidates for assembly seats.

4. In kind support such as allotment of urban plots and rural land for political parties, to generate income sources and build party offices, meeting halls, libraries etc.

In Pakistan, there are about 80 million voters, out of which 40 million would be casting their votes. If GoP decides to pay Rs 100 per voter to political parties, a fund of Rs 4.00 billion (seed fund) should be initially created and should be feasible. This fund would go a long way towards building strong and organised political party system in the country and fostering new entrants representing a diverse social base.

Election Commission of Pakistan or some of its subsidiary should not restrict itself to holding fair and free elections. It should also perform the function of the regulation and oversight of political parties, in so far it impinges with the democratic requirements and norms, as practised in other democratic society. Most of these functions are being performed rather perfunctorily. We are now seeing, how the issue of Articles 62 and 63 and the scrutiny methodology have come under focus and controversy. Mere holding and administration of elections is fast becoming an obsolete and lacking a meaningful role. Much more is being expected of it. Empowerment and expansion of ECP is a legitimate demand. However, all reforms cannot be done in a short time available. We should be content with what can be reasonably achieved within the short time available, and leave the rest to later continuous efforts planned and launched much before the next general elections.


Akhtar Ali, "Strengthening democracy and political parties – II," Business recorder. 2013-02-20.
Keywords: Judicial process , Military rule , Political parties , Political control , Leadership , Political leaders , Political issues , Political crisis , Political funding , Politics , Democracies , Elections , Z A Bhutto , Nawaz Sharif , Pakistan , Germany , PPP , MQM , PMLN