Marriam Mufti has a point


I liked the argument given by Marriam Mufti in her latest article in The Friday Times on the political parties and street power. Just wanted to share it with you:

“Political parties and street power”

Mariam Mufti

Since Independence, Pakistan’s political system has witnessed a tussle between two configurations of power: political parties led by politicians vying for public office and the second and more dominant, the state controlled by the military and its junior partner in the oligarchy – the bureaucracy.

To win public office and by so doing gain access to the state’s resources, political parties have had two strategies at their disposal. In the short term, a political party could either cooperate with the military so that its immediate interests are fulfilled or it could choose to organise and build its strength to emerge as a dominant institution in the state apparatus, inadvertently or consciously leading to democracy in the long term.

It is puzzling that in both these scenarios political parties in Pakistan do not seem to have used their capacity to mobilise street power in the non-electoral context to counter the influence of the military. This is all the more surprising since it is clearly in the rational interest of the political parties to maximise their political power by, first, shoring up support against the military and, second, establishing linkages with the citizenry to win electoral votes against other competing political parties.

The answer to this puzzle lies in the way the question is framed: Do political parties not want to mobilise street power because they do not need to do so or is it that they are restricted in their ability to do so? Taking into account the context of political competition in Pakistan and the nature of political parties, it would appear that it is a bit of both.

Across the political spectrum, from mainstream political parties (PML and PPP) to ethnic parties (ANP and MQM) and even the six-party religio-political alliance, the MMA, political parties have only been active in the electoral context. They have operated primarily as lasting coalitions that have fielded candidates for legislative and executive office. The formation of political parties has served to pool resources and permit individual politicians to appeal to electorates more efficiently. Hence as Dr Mohammad Waseem rightly observes, parties have served to “aggregate potential winners and not potential interests”. It should be noted here that the animal called a ‘political party’ in Pakistan does not perform the functions expected of its species in the context of western democracies.

Elections in Pakistan have generally been held in circumstances that have rendered them dubious despite the rhetoric of their being ‘free and fair’. This has generated patterns among political parties of political competition which is heavily invested in stimulating the mobilisation of constituencies by offering direct material incentives and symbolic advantages to those who support party candidates (members, supporters, activists). Hence elections have been more about the provision of incentives and distribution of patronage and less about issues or taking principled ideological stands that emerge out of consensus-building activity among state and societal actors.

The above two factors explain why parties in Pakistan tend to be clientalist in nature, that is, politicians tend to buy the support of constituencies through direct compensation during elections rather than being issue-oriented. If parties in Pakistan were to be issue-based, they would also seek to be active in the non-electoral context because politicians would compensate party supporters indirectly through the formation of policy packages. Procedures of consensus-building and devising of policies would precede actual electioneering. In the latter case, it is more plausible to see a political party articulate the interests of society thereby winning the support of the people in a non-electoral setting and have a more responsive electorate.

The differences in clientalist parties (those that exist in Pakistan) and issue-based parties highlight why it is that political parties do not mobilise street power to rattle the foundations of power controlled by the state elite. First, parties in Pakistan are disadvantaged in political mobilisation because they have not aggregated the salient issues on which to mobilise people. Second, they have not engaged in consensus–building, prerequisite to unite and rally different societal interests under one banner.

The argument is not that political parties in Pakistan are incapable of mobilising street power, but that mobilisation, even if they try it or when they have, would be ineffective and weak. Political parties, because of their clientalist nature, are not entirely devoid of ‘programmatic signals’, but the relationship of accountability and responsiveness between the citizenry and a political party is such that the costs of political mobilisation would be far higher than the potential gains to be made.

The second part of my argument is that political parties in Pakistan are weakly institutionalised. This is evident in weak party roots in society, less legitimacy accorded to parties and elections by political actors and weak party organisations that have been prone to factionalisation and dominated by personalistic leaders. In Pakistan, when a political party has been elected into government, it has been obliged to look towards the military-bureaucracy rather than its constituency to survive in office. Extra-parliamentary forces have entrenched themselves in the political system using both formal and informal mechanisms to ensure the subordination of elected assemblies. It is therefore not surprising that political parties, instead of relying on populist politics and developing programmatic foundations, have espoused a clientalist mode of party formation. Since clientalist parties compensate supporters through direct exchanges instead of through consensus-building, they do not have to mobilise voters in the non-electoral context to ensure legitimacy or re-election.

The major lesson that emerges from this formulation is that if political parties want to counter the entrenched political power of the military-bureaucratic oligarchy by mobilising street power, they would need to serve as a conduit between state and society by aggregating interests and articulating issues. By doing so, political parties will establish meaningful linkages with the citizenry that will allow them to ameliorate the lack of communication between the electors and the elected and generate more political activism instead of apathy from the citizenry.

Currently, political parties in Pakistan are operating as clientalist parties instead of as programmatic parties. I am not arguing that clientalist parties are incapable of mobilising street power, but that the incentive structures of these parties are such that they do not have to mobilise in the non-electoral context. However, if Pakistani political parties were to opt for a mode of party formation that revolves around consensus-building and solving collective action problems, then the accommodation of societal interests and the subsequent mobilisation of street power could have more teeth and could truly ruffle the feathers of the ruling coterie.

Mariam Mufti is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on the party system of Pakistan at the Johns Hopkins University

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