View Full Version : Intra-party despotism By Hussain H Zaidi - 8th March 2016

8th March 2016, 11:11 AM
In Pakistan, for the most part, there is an inverse relationship between democracy in a political party and its popularity, as measured by its electoral success. This is the inference that one can logically draw from a recent report by an Islamabad-based NGO on the state of intra-party democracy.

The PML-N – the nation’s most popular political party on the basis of the 2013 elections – has been found to be the least democratic. The PPP – the second largest political party – has been ranked the fifth least democratic out of the eight parties surveyed. The MQM – the fourth largest party – and the JUI-F, which has considerable support in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, are jointly at number six. The PTI – the third largest political party – is the notable exception to the rule, as it is ranked as the third most democratic party. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which has a meagre representation in parliament, is the most democratic.

In the West, before the advent of representative democracy in the 19th century, the political process was dominated by narrowly based cliques and factions led by powerful princes, dukes and barons. When political parties appeared on the horizon, the same factions took control of them. But with the growth of business and industry, the nobility made way for the bourgeoisie – bankers, merchants and industrialists. However, politics retained its elitist character. It was only gradually that the political parties assumed a democratic character, which the changing national culture.

In less developed regions with strong feudal or tribal traditions valuing personal loyalty (though they borrowed the Western constitutional model), politics has remained a largely tribal or dynastic affair, controlled by charismatic personalities.

Although feudalism is no longer the dominant mode of production in Pakistan, the feudal psyche is still a powerful element in the national political culture. Central to feudalism is the notion of the fief – a piece of land held by a lord or overlord. In his fiefdom, the lord reigns supreme.

The status of a feudal or a tenant is an ascribed rather than an acquired status. Logically, in a feudal society, leaders are born and not made, and leadership is regarded as a gift of nature, not an outcome of nurture. Leaders are considered to have some innate qualities of head that set them miles apart from ordinary people.

Z A Bhutto ruled the country – first as president and civilian chief martial law administrator and then as premier. His daughter Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister twice and was all set for a third term when she was assassinated. After her death, the party leadership passed on to her husband and her son.

Then there are the Sharifs of Raiwind, with a record of three terms as prime minister and two as chief minister; the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, with one term as prime minister, one as deputy prime minister and one as chief minister; the Khars of Muzaffargarh, with one term as foreign minister and one as governor; the Gilanis of Multan, with one term as prime minister; the Maulanas of D I Khan, with one term as chief minister, one as federal minister and one as leader of the opposition; and the Khans of Charsadda with only one chief minister but by all accounts the all-time leading family in KP politics).

In Pakistan, politics is by and large a family affair. The party is regarded as a fief, whose ownership is considered an inalienable right, and leadership, like property, is bequeathed to the next of kin. No outsider can stake a claim to that. It is inconceivable, for instance, that anyone not related to the Bhutto-Zardari family could rise to the leadership of the PPP. Similarly, anyone can assume the highest slot in the PML-N, provided he or she is a member of the Sharif family.

As in an absolute monarchy or totalitarian state, the authority of the supreme leader of a party governed by a dynasty seldom comes into question. Once a party leader, always a party leader. Benazir Bhutto was elected PPP chairperson for life – a rare thing in a functional democracy.

By the same token, Zardari is likely to remain in charge of the party for as long as he wants. At some point, he may abdicate in favour of his son, just as kings occasionally do. But that would be a transfer of power within the family. Likewise, anyone can challenge the right of the Sharifs to call the shots in their party but only at his or her own peril.

Leadership is one side of the equation; the other side is that of followers. If leadership is regarded as a birth-right, subservience is also considered a duty by birth. If a handful of families are destined to rule, the rest of society is condemned to be their followers. This, again, is comparable to the feudal system, in which the scions of lords are lords and the children of tenants are tenants.

Being strongly embedded in the national ethos, the dynastic tradition is not confined to politics and political parties; it is also present in businesses, which largely remain a family enterprise.

Though we may look askance at dynastic politics, we cannot deny that it has performed a useful function for the parties concerned. The PPP without a Bhutto or the PML-N without a Sharif at its helm would be likely to see its fortune suffer. Today, when we talk about the PPP’s revival, the name that instantly comes to mind in spearheading the effort is none other than Bilawal Bhutto.

This is because the people really want a dynasty or a charismatic leader to rule them. Democracy may have its origins in the West, but its practice in a particular place is shaped by the local milieu. And in our culture, authoritarianism is a powerful factor. Intra-party democracy is hard to come by in such an ethos.

The writer is a graduate from a western European university.

Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com