For decades, Pakistani political parties have struggled to become viable institutions in the face of military dictatorships, leadership crises, assassinations, corruption, and ideological struggles.
Ahead of a crucial parliamentary election next month, Pakistan’s major parties face the additional challenge of answering the public’s demand for accountability and transparency while trying to maintain a united front. This damages their appeal for voters and compromises their long-term viability as the building blocks of a vibrant democracy.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the former ruling party, has the most hurdles to overcome. While it fares well in opinion surveys despite leading the federal government for five years, the party says the country’s judiciary, on behalf of the powerful military, is out to bring it down.
PML-N says the recent sentencing of its leaders is part of the military’s efforts to bolster its challengers, particularly Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
On June 28, The Supreme Court convicted outspoken PML-N former minister Daniyal Aziz of contempt, disqualifying him from participating in elections for five years.
The conviction came a day after an election tribunal in the northwestern city of Rawalpindi disqualified former Prime Minister and PML-N stalwart Shahid Khaqan Abbasi under constitutional provisions requiring government officials to be “truthful and honest.” On June 29, the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore, however, accepted Abbasi’s appeal and allowed him to contest the election.
“Why are they disqualifying us one by one? Why don’t they just say they want to stop PML-N from winning?” says Maryam Nawaz.
She is the heir apparent to her father, PML-N leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was sacked from his job by the Supreme Court last year after failing to declare a potential salary from his son’s company in Dubai.
"I was removed in a minute," he told supporters at the time. "It is not an insult to an elected prime minister but an insult to millions of voters."
Back in the 1980s, Sharif, the son of a steel tycoon, launched his political career with the help of a military dictator General Zia-ul Haq. But by the end of the 1990s, he had clashed with the military and was toppled by General Pervez Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999.
After more than a decade in exile and opposition, Sharif returned to power in 2013. Despite leading a center-right party, his worldview had reportedly changed. He eventually clashed with the military after pursuing peace with India. Sharif and the military also disagreed over how to handle Islamist militant groups operating out of Pakistan.
After PTI leader Khan attempted to bring down his administration through a sit-in protest in 2014, Sharif accused the military of supporting his rivals. Such charges accumulated in the runup to the elections as PML-N faced setbacks in the courts.
The military and PTI, however, deny they are joined in an effort to block PML-N’s return to power. Chief Justice Saqib Nisar also rejects criticism that the judiciary is part of an anti-democracy campaign.
"This is an election year. Political parties are fighting for power, and this fight has to be at each other’s expense,” Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the military, told journalists earlier this month.
But the center-right PTI has its own woes. Its image as the favorite of Pakistan’s military establishment has attracted turncoats from other parties. Many have now turned on each other as they jostle for potential spoils after the elections.
Last week, Jahangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the two most senior PTI leaders following Khan, openly taunted each other. Even Khan acknowledged they are leading opposing factions within his party.
“Tareen is not part of the game anymore,” Qureshi told journalists last week in an apparent reference to his rival’s disqualification from parliament and taking part in elections by the country’s apex court late last year.
Tareen, on the other hand, advised Qureshi to focus on his own constituency and key powerbase in the central city of Multan where PTI factions are jostling over nominations for party’s candidates for the July 25 polls.
The party faces mounting criticism over its performance in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where it ran the provincial administration for five years. On the contrary, PML-N is touting its stint in power in the eastern province of Punjab.
This most populous province is also home to a majority of seats in the popularly elected National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament. Parties aiming to form the national administration in Islamabad are required to perform well in Punjab. The PML-N has successful projects to showcase, and it boasts an overall decrease in power cuts and a general upturn in the economy and security in Punjab compared with PTI’s listless performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a secular left-leaning group, faces similar problems. Once Pakistan’s largest political party enjoying four stints in power, it is largely relegated to southern Sindh Province. But even there its performance appears to have not even impressed voters.
The election will be a key test for its young charismatic leader, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who is poised to take charge from his father and former President Asif Ali Zardari.
“The conspiracies hatched by enemies of democracy are at a peak,” Bhutto-Zardari told journalists on June 28. “An atmosphere of uncertainty and fear is being created. Censorship is being imposed on freedom of expression.”
While diehard PPP supporters pin their hopes on his charisma and his appeal as the heir to his late mother and grandfather Benazir Bhutto and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the party recently lost many key leaders in Punjab. Its vote bank shrunk dramatically during the previous election in 2013, and it barely won any seats.
Smaller parties also face disunity, confusion, and alleged discrimination and harassment by the security establishment.
Traditional Islamist political parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) and Jammat-e Islami continue to disagree over tickets despite uniting in an electoral alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i Amal.
Their traditional vote banks are threatened by new hard-line factions such as Allahu Akbar Tehreek and Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah.
While Islamabad has often tolerated Islamist groups, it has feared secular ethno-nationalist movements and political parties. Successive governments and the civil and military bureaucracies at the helm of policymaking for most of its 70-year history have often labeled those campaigning for the rights of minority ethnic groups as traitors seeking to undermine Pakistan’s status as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims.
Ethno-nationalist leaders say this explains their mixed electoral record and periodic persecution by the authorities. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was once a major parliamentary party that attracted votes from Mohajirs. The terms denotes Urdu-speaking Muslim immigrants and their descendants who left India for Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947. After successfully leading the party from exile for more than two decades, MQM founder Altaf Hussain lost control, and the MQM is now in tatters.
After a controversial speech in August 2016, his followers disowned Hussain and the MQM split into factions. The party’s disunity opened its key stronghold, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to other parties.
The situation for ethno-nationalist parties in the neighboring province of Balochistan is even more uncertain. The region is still reeling from violence as part of a Baluch separatist insurgency and Islamabad’s harsh crackdown on its supporters.
Akhtar Mengal leads the Balochistan National Party, which seeks to secure Baluch rights through parliamentary politics. He alleges that elections in the region might turn into a farce. “If it’s going to be selection & not an election (like always), they can simply let us know and not create unnecessary trouble and drama and save public money and time,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mengal hopes Islamabad will ensure the region’s residents can freely elect representatives.
“The consequences will be disastrous,” he warned if his party again loses elections.