The fourth party conundrum

Posted on December 17, 2016



There is no dearth of political parties in Pakistan. If you look at the never-ending list of parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan, you are most likely to be shocked by the sheer number. Yet in this crowd only three parties can boast of having truly national appeal. Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. There was a time there were only two. During 1990s you witnessed an exhausting musical chair between PPP and PML-N. The insurgent in the system, PTI emerged as a serious political player in 2011. It fought 2013 general elections on the platform of change. It is not for the first time that a party has used this promise to appeal to the masses. Our religious political alliances have often pledged the same. One recent example is the multiparty religious alliance called MMA. It might be news to many that back in 2002 Imran Khan wanted his party to become a part of MMA. The perennial insecurities of our religious political elite ensured that the request was denied.

But here is the problem. The promise of change sounds good. Yet its contours are seldom defined. As a result, when MMA got a chance to form a government in the province that has since been renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it didn’t know what to do. It is one thing to claim you are not corrupt, totally another when people learn that corruption is not the only thing you are incapable of. Among other things alien to you is the small matter of governance and the knowhow about it. So, when a voter approached an MMA minister complaining about unemployment of his son, instead of the promise of job creation what he got in response was the information that the minister’s own son was also unemployed.

So far, our insurgents, our agents of change in PTI with their government in K-P have not been able to bring about a revolutionary change. In the years since the 2013 mandate the party has failed to grow out of the campaign mode. As a result, it spent most of its time on streets. If PPP was once accused of being a party of opposition which knew precious little about governance, PTI has joined the ranks. Agitation and disruptions look good when you are not nearing an election cycle. The election day is primarily about your legacy. PML-N gets this crucial point and that is precisely why it has refused to halt its developmental projects despite various obstacles. That essentially means it will be quite relevant on the election day. That is despite many flaws in its governance model.

Meanwhile Bilawal is trying hard to revive his party which was reduced to Sindh province in 2013 elections. So far, he is getting good response. But the biggest problem with the prospects of revival is the fact that PPP has a different personality when in opposition and totally another one when in power. In opposition, senior leaders like Raza Rabbani, Aitzaz Ahsan and Amin Faheem are more visible. In government, however the party chooses to empower faces like Rehman Malik, Babar Awan and Pervaiz Ashraf. So, nobody knows right now whether they are dealing with the party of Bilawal or of Asif Ali Zardari. Another problem is that of party’s outdated socialist platform which seldom delivers.

So, what happens if on the election day one or both opposition parties flop? One party system? Is it not prudent then to look for a fourth option? A fresh start with fresh faces? But this too is a potential minefield. Three types of parties have ever come close to this status. Religious political parties. Regional or subnational parties. And parties associated with military rulers. The first would be an unmitigated disaster. A regional party alliance can theoretically work but it may lack cohesion. And regional parties are mostly left leaning and have serious trust deficit. Since military strongmen are rapidly getting irrelevant the third is not even an option.

Time is ripe for a fourth party’s emergence. A party with a pragmatist platform. The one that unites patriotism, democratic constitutionalism, and market economy without ideological hiccups. But while the need is evidently there, a leadership that can inspire such a movement is not. If no such party emerges before 2018 elections, it will be greatest missed opportunity of this term.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2016.