Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Political parties do not have to be causally connected to democracy

analysis: Political parties and democracyMariam Mufti Daily Times Monday, February 11, 2008
As voters gear up to decide once more which political party should represent the country’s interests, it is worthwhile to take a moment’s pause and reflect over the nature of democracy that we want and the kind of parties we would like to see elected to office
Among many students of democracy there is apparent consensus behind E E Schattschneider’s claim that “political parties created democracy and that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties”. Yet political parties are not always perceived as the most desirable of political institutions by governments and politicians. Some prefer democracy sans parties, fearing that they a source of factionalism and a threat to stability. Behind the apparent dichotomy between these views there is a wide range of definitions for democracy and the nature of political parties.
  • Is democracy about outcomes or about process?
  • If it is about outcomes, are outcomes then restricted by policy or the choices of political actors, or does democracy extend to the social, moral and psychological development of the citizens?
  • Are the political parties autonomous actors in the political process and the voters are called upon to choose from an array of them, or are they channels through which the citizens act politically?
To resolve the debate on whether or not strong political parties are essential for democracy, we need to understand what political parties are — their objectives, their organisation, and what they do. Let’s define democracy in the Dahlian tradition as an apolitical system in which important government posts are decided through fair, competitive elections held on a regular schedule, freedoms of association and speech are protected and franchise is extended to all adult citizens. In such a political system, political parties may function as fundamental conduits of political life — as major agents of representation and institutions that order legislative life.
For the voter, political parties provide critical information about the candidates and what they stand for. For the politician, who is short-sighted and unlikely to think beyond his own self-interest, the political party is more a stepping stone to power — an institution which resolves a variety of coordination problems in pursuit of public office and state resources. Strong parties are also essential to democratic governability because they serve as a bridge between the executive and the legislature and provide a critical mechanism to overcome gridlock. So political parties are endemic to democracy, but they are not part of the fundamental definition of democracy, nor do they find a role dictated for themselves in the constitutions of most democracies. Edmund Burke defines a political party as

“...a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”.

There is nothing in this definition that suggests that political parties are inherently democratic or must function in a way that leads to democratic ends. In fact if the world is not ordered around the notion of some public good but around the inevitability of conflicting interests, then parties promote interests that are partial or extremist and have very little to do with the positive outcome of protection of citizen rights, much less democracy. As Susan Stokes puts it,

“it is hard to shake off the intuition that the more political parties are in evidence the more consolidated the democracy appears to be.”

Yet it is also possible to argue that while political parties are characteristic of modern democracy and the inevitable expressions of its consolidation and development, they do not have to be causally connected to democracy.
Let us now turn towards Pakistan to see whether political parties are the “inevitable evil” or institutions that make “democracy more democratic”. Despite the barriers set upon the democratic process in Pakistan, electoral dynamics, election-related activities and political parties have continued to be meaningful. In the past, military rulers in Pakistan, seeking legitimacy as the guardians of democracy, condemned political parties as ill-organised, ineffective and incapable of maintaining political stability. Yet, the military-bureaucratic oligarchy that has retained control of the Pakistani state directly or indirectly since independence has not been able to do away with political parties and has been compelled to coerce or co-opt them, even cooperate with them.
Political parties and electoral processes have become a matter of fact for rulers and cannot be wished away. Under political pressure, military rulers have had to hold elections: Ayub Khan in 1962 and 1965; Yahya Khan in 1970; Ziaul Haq in 1985; and Pervez Musharraf in 2002 and now in 2008. It is worth noting that elected governments have not been overthrown by popular resistance but by extra-parliamentary forces. The fact that political parties in Pakistan have sustained themselves and withstood persecution from extra-parliamentary forces implies that political parties serve functions that benefit some segment of society but do not have to advance democratic outcomes.
On the other hand political parties in Pakistan are criticised for being inefficient and weakly institutionalised. This is evident in weak party roots in society, less legitimacy accorded to parties and elections by political actors and weak party organisations that have been prone to factionalisation and dominated by personalistic leaders.
In Pakistan, when a political party has been elected to government, it has been obliged to look towards the military-bureaucracy rather than its constituency to survive in office. Extra-parliamentary forces have entrenched themselves in the political system using both formal and informal mechanisms to ensure the subordination of elected assemblies. It is therefore not surprising that political parties, instead of relying on populist politics and developing programmatic foundations, have espoused a clientalist mode of party formation. Since clientalist parties compensate supporters through direct exchanges instead of through consensus building, they do not have to mobilise voters in the non-electoral context to ensure legitimacy or re-election.
Apart from that these parties have been vulnerable to factionalism and in-fighting and have splintered several times over the years into opposing factions — MQM-A and MQM-H; PPP and PPPP; PMLN and PMLQ etc. — most often dependent on charismatic leaders belonging to the traditional, landed, political elite.
In Pakistan, political parties are understood to be multifaceted organisations functioning in interaction with each other as they compete for power at both the centre and the provinces in a federal political system. They have served to sustain democracy or even the illusion of it by being major agents of representation during times of general election. They have served the military as co-opted institutions necessary for legitimation in the eyes of the people and the international community. They have served the people by aggregating and solving their collective action dilemmas. They have also served the political elite to attain political office and gain access to public resources.
Now that Pakistan stands at a crossroads again, and voters are gearing up to decide once more which political party should represent the country’s interests, it is worthwhile to take a moment’s pause and reflect over the nature of democracy that we want and the kind of parties we would like to see elected to office. Is the Pakistani polity even ready for a responsive, democratic government in which parties stand at the helm?
Mariam Mufti is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on the party system of Pakistan at the Johns Hopkins University Home Editorial Dichotomy in Electioneering: A Perspective from Desicritics by temporal

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