Authoritarianism and Political Party Reform in Pakistan
Authoritarianism and Political Party Reform in Pakistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Let Afghanistan Rebuild
Let Afghanistan Rebuild
Report 102 / Asia

Authoritarianism and Political Party Reform in Pakistan

Although the dangers are evident, the international community continues to support General Pervez Musharraf because of his perceived cooperation in the war on terror, ignoring unconstitutional constraints on the civilian opposition.

Executive Summary

Although the dangers are evident, the international community continues to support General Pervez Musharraf because of his perceived cooperation in the war on terror, ignoring unconstitutional constraints on the civilian opposition. However, the military's refusal to cede real power to civilians and its marginalisation of moderate parties has boosted religious extremists. Instability is worsening, and sectarian conflict threatens to spin out of control. Lacking robust international support for a democratic transition, mainstream parties struggle to survive, subjected to coercion and violence. They can be the most effective safeguard against the religious lobby's manifestly anti-Western agenda, but only if allowed to function freely in a democratic environment. They need outside help but must also get more serious about reforming themselves.

Since his October 1999 coup, General Musharraf, like his military predecessors, has sought domestic and international legitimacy through a civilian façade. He has created his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam, PML-Q) and brought it to power through rigged elections. The PML-Q now heads the government in the centre and in three of Pakistan's four provinces. Yet, its reliance on the military undermines its credibility as a representative and independent party.

To offset Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N, Nawaz), as well as regional parties, Musharraf has consolidated the military's links with religious parties. This has enabled the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), a combination of six religious parties, to form the government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and become the PML-Q's coalition partner in Balochistan, as well as gain an influential voice in the national parliament.

During the local elections, the moderate parties again bore the brunt of state coercion, particularly the PPP and PML-N, which headed Pakistan's emerging two-party system during the democratic transition of the 1990s and still present the most credible alternatives to authoritarian rule. While Musharraf has restricted their political space, his government's tactics have also brought them together in an anti-military coalition, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), the largest opposition group in the National Assembly.

The PPP and PML-N each formed two elected governments in the 1990s and share blame for that flawed democratic transition. Their inept governance, political vendettas and willingness to align with the military against the other stalled democratic reform and enabled the high command to oust the elected government in 1999. Both parties now acknowledge their failures, and their opposition to authoritarian rule has allowed them to regain some credibility.

Whether they can steer Pakistan towards democracy and political stability, however, will depend importantly on whether they can organise their grassroots base in a hostile environment, hampered by the continued exile of their leaders and the defection under military pressure of many senior figures. Flawed internal structures have made the PPP and PML-N, as well as other opposition parties, especially vulnerable to the military's political machinations.

Overly centralised structures have weakened communication between the leadership and lower cadres, making internal discipline and accountability elusive and hampering efforts to broaden decision making. Addressing these weaknesses through internal party reform needs to be a top priority.

To revive party machinery under the current regime, the PPP, PML-N and other moderate groups will need to reduce dependence on individual leaders and institute mechanisms aimed especially at extending ownership over party policy to grassroots workers, who have been crucial to the parties' survival, but have been largely ignored in decision-making processes. Allowing all tiers to play meaningful roles would make parties more responsive to new social and political challenges and enable them to build the durable political infrastructure necessary for a successful democratic transition.

Strengthening Pakistan's democratic parties is also crucial for the international community. The marginalisation of moderate voices has allowed religious parties to fill a political vacuum. Their increasing strength has encouraged intolerance and extremism that could erode regional stability if left unchecked.

Islamabad/Brussels, 28 September 2005

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