Mar 13, 2009

Absence of alternatives

By Ayesha Siddiqa

The crisis is two-fold. On the one hand there is the decay of existing parties, on the other the absence of an alternative. However, a new party that could fill the political vacuum is nowhere to be seen.
There is Imran Khan who is quite popular amongst some segments of the urban elite but has not managed to win mass support, mainly because he hasn’t offered a clear alternative and continues to drift between right and left political ideologies. To give Imran Khan his due, he and his backers have emerged as a pressure group though not as a political force.
Perhaps this lack of alternative is due to the death of politics in the country. One wonders what it would take for a new political force, the kind that previously created the two major parties, to emerge.
A common feature of all parties is a very strong leadership at the top, and an oligarchic structure which then connects with the lower rungs on the basis of the redistribution of rewards. Ultimately, the reward depends on access to and approval of the top leadership routed through the oligarchy. This works as a bond at the lowest level rather than at the top which makes most parties quite similar, especially the two major national parties of the country.
The Muslim League emerged from the pre-1947 crisis. However, after independence and the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, reactionary forces not only strengthened their control but also paved the way for the disintegration of the Muslim League. Since it was the only key party at that time, powerful establishment forces hijacked it. Thus, it was not surprising that the Muslim League kept splitting into several factions. Beginning with the first major splinter group controlled by Ayub Khan, the PML recreated itself in the form of different factions. At this point, the party leadership is divided on the basis of personal interests rather than on that of ideology.
The political crisis of the 1960s resulted in the creation of the PPP in the western wing and the Awami League in the eastern wing. The crisis led people to the streets. In West Pakistan, the PPP came into being with the combined efforts of socialist, left-of-centre, Islamic socialist and reactionary forces. The PPP’s political agenda and election manifesto of ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ attracted the common man in search of his rights and hopeful of getting a state that could perform better in delivering basic services to the people.
However, the greatest mistake was to accommodate reactionary forces such as feudal lords and other powerful cliques. These were included in the party by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto because he was one of them, and without making deals he couldn’t build a strong party to displace Gen Ayub Khan and his political partners in a short time. In any case, in Pakistan there is a strong tradition of cutting deals with reactionary forces to enable the elite to remain in power.
The inclusion of this powerful elite was the PPP’s ideological undoing. During the 1970s, leftist and Islamic socialist forces were pushed to the background and the landed feudal and other powerful groups took their place. However, the PPP’s advantage rested in those pockets that looked upon Bhuttoism as an ideology and a symbol of empowerment for the dispossessed. The memory of Bhutto’s fiery slogans and the times when big business was pushed back, though in a superficial manner, did not go away. Without assessing the ability of their leadership to empower the masses, PPP voters were caught in a time warp, also the result of successive military interventions.
The PPP’s greatest advantage was in having charismatic leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto followed by Benazir Bhutto, keeping the vote bank engaged with the idea of delivering to the masses once the party got the opportunity to do so. Credit also goes to the party’s peculiar vote-bank management structure for keeping Bhuttoism alive. A strong central control also ensured the absence of splinter groups. The PPP-SB is not even a proper splinter group; it merely indicates a division within the Bhutto family.
Like other national and ethnic parties, the PPP has a highly centralised structure controlled by a strong leader able to create and recreate slogans without delivering much. But, unlike the Muslim League, the PPP has an integrated three-tiered party management structure. With a strong leader surrounded by a set of senior leaders representing the party elite, the operations of mobilising voters and distributing rewards is carried out by the middle tier that also delivers the lower tiers to the top leadership. In the context of the country’s political patronage system, the middle tier has a better chance of getting rewards for keeping the ideology alive and the vote bank engaged.
This is a highly bureaucratic structure which feeds into the larger political structure of the country. This means that the political party structure is fundamentally part of a system where military dictatorships are replaced by dominant political parties, only to be replaced by another military dispensation. Party management depends on keeping the vote bank alive with the expectation of the even distribution of rewards once the military dictatorship is gone. This may keep the party alive but will not solve political crises.
The efficient party structure might come under greater pressure now that a charismatic leader is gone. While we hear about dissent inside the party, a real break might happen with help from the establishment. The long march and divisions between the prime minister and president could well be a precursor to the fragmentation of the PPP.
The bottom-line is that most parties have become less imaginative as far as ideology goes. This feeds directly into the death of politics in this country. All new alternatives now depend on the establishment as it was in the past.

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