Politics and political life are being transformed across the world by the dynamics of the digital era. The broadcast media’s reach and direct action by citizens and civil society using the media and communication technology are changing the nature of political engagement. This is encroaching upon the traditional sphere of political parties, which are no longer the only determinant of the political game.

Pakistan is no exception to this global trend. The rapid advance of the broadcast media and the growth of a more diverse and vibrant civil society have helped to dramatically alter the political landscape. TV viewership is reported to have risen to over eighty per cent of households. The country has the highest teledensity in the region, with over a hundred million mobile-phone subscribers. Internet access has also grown significantly.

All this is changing how people relate to and think about politics, parties and governance. Greater “connectivity” is providing people with information and the tools to empower themselves, as well as monitor government performance more effectively. This has helped to invigorate the democratic process.

But it also means that political parties are not the only vehicles or avenues through which the public engages with politics or communicate their views on issues that affect them.

What is perhaps distinctive about this phenomenon in Pakistan is that it has occurred in a context of weak political institutions. This asymmetry has implications and poses dilemmas that are specific toPakistan . The broadcast media has acquired a more pronounced role and wields greater influence here because it is also filling a political vacuum left by fragile democratic institutions including parliament andpolitical parties.

Usually the media and other civil society organizations supplement and therefore strengthen the institutions of democracy, but when they begin to supplant many of their functions, that raises questions about their future evolution.

Pakistan has in recent years witnessed the fast expanding electronic media act as a vigorous watchdog, scrutinizing government and opposition conduct, exposing corruption and highlighting social ills and human rights violations. It has also enlarged the space for political dialogue and promoted a culture of debate. More robust political debates now take place on the television screen, not the floor of parliament.

TV networks have provided avenues for expression to a larger segment of the public, who through this process have empowered themselves and gained the self-confidence to engage more actively with issues. It has offered a voice to marginalized groups and to victims of abuse seeking redress.

Civil society organizations representing a more assertive middle class have pressed their views and interests – outside the framework of political parties – to offer different paths to civic and political engagement. The most spectacular example of this was the lawyers’ movement in 2008-09 for the reinstatement of the chief justice which achieved its goal last year.

Advocacy groups have been engaging more actively on a range of issues including governance matters – by taking their case to the media or undertaking campaigns to enlist public support. A host of new civic and professional forums have also emerged to inform and influence public debate. For instance, associations of formercivil servants have articulated views on public policy in efforts to shape wider opinion.

All of this has served as a political game changer and accelerated pluralism. Increasingly, the political agenda is being set bythe media – and sometimes by other civil society groups – with political parties responding to this rather than initiating policy debate. Examples abound. From the rental-power projects to the power crisis, the rehabilitation of IDPs, US drone attacks inPakistan ’s tribal areas and mismanagement of state enterprises, media pressure has prompted parties to take positions and their leaders to make spirited interventions in parliament.
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The electronic media has taken the lead in framing the issues, changing opinion (repeal of the Hudood Ordinance) and transformingthe public sentiment (on fighting militancy by galvanizing support for last year’s military operation in Swat).

It could even be argued that a more effective “opposition” has emerged from within civil society, led by the media. The quintessential functions of an opposition – to hold the government to account, subject executive actions to rigorous oversight and suggest policy alternatives – have increasingly been performed bythe media rather than political parties.

The media has also charted a political direction in key areas. The national consensus against militancy that emerged last year was forged in the first instance bythe media, well before political leaders decided to follow suit. In the case of the restoration of the chief justice, it was the public mobilization undertaken by civil society and supported by the media that created the dynamic that opposition parties reinforced and leveraged.

But there are limits to the role of both the media and newly empowered civil society organizations. They can frame the agenda and raise issues in people’s hearts and minds but it is parties that enforce and execute that agenda when they win power. Civil society activism cannot by itself take the country to the endpoint of good, responsive governance.

More often than not, one-issue groups mobilize public pressure in order to push political parties to lend support to their cause. Alliances formed around a single goal – for example the campaign for the judges’ reinstatement – usually dissipate once their objective is achieved.

While the democratic dividends of these newer forms of political engagement are evident they cannot supplant the primary function ofpolitical parties – to contest for power. Parties have a vital role to play and are the only means to structure competition for representation.

But Pakistan’s parties have been slow to respond to the changes wrought by the communication revolution as well as the past decade’s social and economic developments, which together have outpaced their skills and structures.

Political parties, whether in government or opposition, have been stuck in a traditional mode. They continue to accord primacy to patronage over policy. They also give little sustained attention to issues, other than releasing rather perfunctorily framed programmes at election time. Instead of embracing the new channels of political expression by feeding the issues raised in this manner into their agendas, the major parties have continued to focus on working patronage networks.

They have remained fixated on their traditional constituencies, rather than seek to expand them and tap the aspirations of a growing middle class. Today the country’s middle class is estimated to be around 30 per cent of the population, but is there a national party that really represents this significant constituency? It would be a great loss for democracy if a large section of this burgeoning, educated middle class was to join the already substantial number of non-voters.

The extraordinary challenges Pakistan faces today create the imperative for the major parties to shake off their intellectual lethargy and think and act imaginatively to address the issues critical for the country’s future. But have they equipped themselves with the expertise and organization to do this?

To avert a “crisis of representation” parties have to do better to hear people’s new voices, engage their participation, and respond to their changing needs. They have to acknowledge that sound policies that assure delivery of public goods to all citizens, and not patronage for the selected few, is the guarantor of political success.Pakistan ’s political leaders also need to develop capacities in their parties for policy thinking, and move away from the overwhelming concern with patronage which hobbles their evolution as modern parties.

Until parties develop new tool kits to deal with present-day challenges Pakistan’s democracy will not be able to deliver the quality of governance its people deserve and desire. Instead, a shallow democracy will be in place in which political parties will continue to alternate in power, but denuded of the capacity to align governance to public purpose and expectations.