The Political Parties of Pakistan – Saim Saeed

A Pakistani soldier loads ballot boxes into a van in Rawalpindi. Authorities hope the app, combined with a fully revised voter list and an unprecedented level of public scrutiny, will help ensure the election will be the cleanest ever. Photograph: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

A Pakistani soldier loads ballot boxes into a van in Rawalpindi. Authorities hope the app, combined with a fully revised voter list and an unprecedented level of public scrutiny, will help ensure the election will be the cleanest ever. Photograph: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy in South Asia is its own animal, and has little resemblance with its counterparts in the United States and elsewhere. Gone are any kind of fault lines between liberals and conservatives, ideologies and the like; “Social Democrats” means little, and Greens, Communists and Freedom, even less.

A widely held view is that political parties in Pakistan (and India) are based on ethnic lines. And there is good reason to believe that view. The PML-N, run by Punjabis, controls northern Punjab. The PPP, run by Sindhis, controls Sindh and parts of Southern Punjab. The ANP, run by Pushtuns, controls the Pushtun-dominated Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province in the North-West, and represents a few Pashtun-heavy neighborhoods in Karachi. Smaller parties run similarly. The MQM, a party founded as a Muhajir – immigrant – party, runs Karachi, the city with the largest Muhajir constituency. The BNP, founded as a Baloch pro-independence party is the most popular party in Balochistan. At various points, parties have tried to fashion themselves nationally, reflecting their larger ambitions. PPP’s official rhetoric talks of a national narrative. The MQM, originally short for Muhajir Quami Movement – National Immigrant Movement – changed to become the Muttahida Quami Movement (without any change to its initials), Muttahida meaning United. These changes have been cosmetic, however, and each party’s constituency remains more or less the same.

This view, however, is incomplete.

While the parties are not named according to where they stand on social or fiscal spectra, the element of how much money their constituencies have – consequently, how much money the parties have – and how they got it, is the crucial indicator of how Pakistani electoral politics work. While the country is ethnically layered and divided, these divisions are also a manifestation of the economic divide that is less visible. And they have more than an impact on electoral politics.

But before we get to the parties, a few caveats to this May 11’s ‘historic’ election. It will not be free nor fair. This is because the Taliban have emerged as the kingmakers by declaring the two new categories of ‘secular’ and ‘non-secular’ parties, and making sure that it’s the non-secular parties that get the nod. Since the beginning of this year, they have targeted the ANP, MQM, PPP and JUIF (a explicitly ‘non-secular’ party) driving them in to hiding. The ANP, the worst-affected, have withdrawn their candidates from Sindh, supporting the PPP candidates in those places. All parties have been unable to stage the kind of jalsas – rallies – that so galvanized PTI’s campaign. The parties have been forced to campaign in secret – a contradiction in terms. The PPP has not even bothered with the campaigning. This is either because they are (rightfully) afraid or because they have identified the votes that they are already going to get. In any case, the violence has marred the campaign in Khyber-Pakhtunwa and Karachi, making this election a primarily Punjabi affair, with primarily Punjabi parties and primarily Punjabi seats up for grabs.

Even so, one also needs to consider the impact that these elections may have. National security and foreign policy does not change. Imran Khan may promise an end to drone attacks, but even the military cannot make that decision. Pretty much every party except for the religious outliers have been for a conclusive peace deal with India, but it has not happened because peace with India has, and will continue to be outside of the civilian government’s purview. That said, perception is everything. Neither India, nor the US has been on the agenda this campaign. The next government in power can actually show how much power civilians can actually exercise in the country. Regular elections, a unfamiliar concept in itself, can only be a good thing.

The BNP:

Balochistan is Pakistan’s poorest, most sparsely populated province that in fact did not vote to join Pakistan in the first place. Baloch dissidents are summarily ‘disappeared’. Their allotted seats in the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) are negligible, and their political clout, worthless. It is seen as the ‘periphery’ despite being Pakistan’s largest province, constituting 45% of its territory. Its people are poor, immobilized, unorganized, and uncontrollable. Balochistan’s land, however, is full of natural gas. In the process of exploiting it, the state has estranged Balochistan’s people from its land. And by doing so, it has made Balochistan and its people toothless, not even bothering to clothe the land’s exploitation. The BNP is simply a reaction to this estrangement; it wants to run the gas fields and the coalmines for itself, rather than see the state run it. Its irrelevance to Pakistani politics is predicated on its lack of control over wealth, people or land.

The ANP:

The ANP has similar issues. While claiming to represent the Pushtuns, a 30 million strong population almost as big as Sindh, they only have a handful of seats in parliament and bound to lose a few more in May. Why? Because their constituency in Khyber Pakhtunwa is an economic backwater. Because the Pushtun migrant workers in Karachi do not own land or industry, and have been bullied by religious zealots and rival party workers. They have also proven to be rotten in governance as part of the ruling coalition over the last five years.

The PPP:

The PPP has just completed an abysmal five years in power. The party has been corrupt, inept, incompetent, nepotistic, and disconnected from the people it had vowed to serve. Yet, it is not unreasonable to assume that they might even be in power next term. They seem relatively unconcerned with their own record, and are proceeding in a comfortable fashion towards the elections in May. This is because the PPP represents the landed, feudal classes of Pakistan, and consequently, the peasants that work on their land. The most productive agricultural lands in Pakistan are the banks of the Indus River, and PPP’s constituency populates it. The President, Asif Ali Zardari, is the richest man in Pakistan despite never holding a job in his life until he became President. The landowners organize their tenants every election and have them vote in large numbers, sometimes two or three times a day; in short, PPP can get out the vote. As Ayesha Siddiqa already mentioned on this website, can easily secure 75 seats from which they could look to build a coalition. The landowning class has power, money, and peasants.  This renders its performance almost irrelevant. His constituency has remained rich, and regardless of whether PPP is elected again, will continue to be so – although it wouldn’t to get elected again.

The PML-N:

The PML-N is the other major party, and it is tipped to be the big winners of the elections scheduled in May. The facile explanations of this are that PML-N is the most popular party of Punjab, which is Pakistan’s most populated province. Also, experts refer to anti-incumbency, especially given the five years of unmitigated disaster the country has just gone through. But again, as with the weakness of Pushtuns as a political constituency, numerical advantage does not necessarily translate to electoral success. And neither was bad governance ever a reason for a party to lose an election. The PML-N represents the affluent, industrial class of Northern Punjab. The land and factory owning class whose primary concern is the growth of industry i.e. their businesses. In that regard, Sharif has not disappointed. Sharif’s first battle in politics was to reverse the nationalization done under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto during the 70’s, which affected his own assortment of factories. In his two-time tenure as Prime Minister, he has presided over the construction of the Motorway between Islamabad and Lahore, the nuclear tests in response to India, the beautification of Lahore, and the development of Economic Development Zones – actions that were favored by the rich, land and factory owning residents of affluent cities such as Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala and Faisalabad, also known as the Northern Punjab Bible Belt. In a way, because of his own clout and his constituencies, Sharif has been able to define his interests as the nation’s, as is Punjab’s wont to do.

The PTI:

Their biggest challengers seem to be the Imran Khan aka Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party. While they seem like the new kids on the block, Khan has been in politics since 1996, but this is the first time they look like they may actually win something more than Khan’s lone parliamentary seat. Khan is appealing to urban and young voters, while still maintaining a religious conservatism of the ‘born-again’ variety. This has also put him in the good books of the Taliban. In a move that screams ‘mainstream Pakistani politics’ he found himself the same feudals that he had been lambasting to fill his senior cadre, including the Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former Foreign Minister and member of the powerful Makhdoom family. He has tried to get as much traction out of being against America as possible, becoming the most vocal opponent of the CIA drone campaign in the northwest. His ubiquitous presence on the Internet may not be completely indicative of his chances on Saturday, but whether or not he actually brings about the callously named ‘tsunami’, he has established significant support. Khan still has a lot prove in actual governance; as difficult as it has been for him to bring his party this far, many would say that lambasting the PPP for five years has been peachy compared to the task of actual governance.

The MQM:

Historically, the MQM has had the dual image of educated, respected, secular officials in its senior party cadre, while simultaneously being responsible for some of the worst political violence the city has ever experienced. Their leader, Altaf Hussain has not set foot in the country for more than twenty years, but is said to always have his fingers on Karachi’s jugular. They have near complete control over the political machinations of the country’s largest city, the MQM has been indispensable to any central government trying to make a coalition. Within the confines of Karachi and Hyderabad, the party has managed to mobilize large groups of young, working class primarily Urdu-speaking men and women. They have governed when they felt like it. Karachiites remember Mustafa Kemal, a former mayor who commissioned visible infrastructural projects all over the city, quite fondly. Their control over the city had previously been undisputed until the Taliban started making inroads a couple of years ago. The recent spate of violence coming to the election has targeted the MQM in particular, destabilizing the previously held notion that Karachi belongs to the MQM.

The religious parties:

They have never won more than 5% of the popular vote, but continue to be a part and parcel of mainstream Pakistani politics. They do not have much of a constituency, but have been able to mobilize angry young men whenever their feelings have been hurt, which happens often. They choose populist issues: blasphemy, CIA drone strikes and they propose populist measures, mostly death by execution, whether it be to YouTube, Mark Zuckerberg or Raymond Davis. Their ability to mobilize has always made them a formidable force, and most leaders since 1947 have pandered to them in some shape or form. They remain conspicuously silent over terrorism, and their connections to terrorist organizations remain sketchy. They have an effective network of schools and charities, and do well to establish themselves as part of the community. They generally tend to hang on to the coat-tails of bigger players, like the military for instance, and this time is no exception. The ASWJ (one among the motley of religious parties whos names are not worth expanding) has done a seat-adjustment deal with the PML-N which grants them the influence they seek. Terrorism, increasingly, has become the elephant in the 180-million people room, and their ambiguous stance has left many skeptical of their plans for the country.

The truth is that as clearly as the ethnic, linguistic, religious and economic battle lines have been drawn, there is only so much one can predict about this election. Rarely in Pakistan do political parties get another crack at running the country; they may get one this Saturday, and amazingly, it may entirely rest on the Pakistani people.