What is the role of political parties in the political system of Pakistan?

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A major factor in the weakness of the democratic movement in Pakistan has been the weakness of the political parties.

Political parties are strengthened by active democratic processes and in turn strong political parties strengthen the democratic processes.

The irony of the situation was that the Muslim League which championed the cause of Pakistan had no strong popular base in the areas which came to comprise the new nation. Moreover, the leaders of the Muslim League could not evolve any consensus on the outlines of the polity for the nation.

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As a constitution could not be framed for the country, the question of elections to the central legislature did not arise. However, some elections were held in the provinces but the electorate was restricted under the 1935 Constitution. Later, when the 1956 Constitution was promulgated it was abrogated by the Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958 even before the first election could be held.

The Ayub Constitution, based on indirect voting from top to bottom, had banned political parties for a long time. Though the ban was lifted later, political parties found no placed in Ayub’s constitutional autocracy. The first ever general election on the basis of adult franchise and territorial constituencies were held under the military rule of Gen. Yahya Khan in 1970.

The election in which the PPP got a majority in West Pakistan and the Awami League capturing almost all the seats in East Pakistan projected the national divide between the two wings of the country. This has a disastrous result as the eastern wing eventually got separated and emerged as an independent nation.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto formed the first democratic government in Pakistan in 1971. Bhutto had come to power in a Pakistan which was reeling under the blows inflicted by the defeat and loss of eastern wing. The economy was in shambles and there was total demoralisation among the people.

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Bhutto did try to strengthen democracy but he was severely handicapped by his background of belonging to one of the largest feudal families in Pakistan. Whatever freedoms he gave with one hand he took them away with the other. His authoritarian conduct the opposition and his own party could not cope with the hostility of the people. It is therefore, not surprising that when Gen. Zia took over and arrested Bhutto, there was no protest from the people. Gen. Zia banned political parties and political activities during his eleven years of rule. He even tried to set a party less polity. However, that did not work. He died in an air crash in 1988.

During the next eleven years of democratic rule four elections were held in 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997. In these four elections, the contest has been between the two major parties, the Pakistan Muslim Leagu (Sharief) (PML-S), a distant successor of the erstwhile Muslim League, and the Pakistan’s People Party (PPP), with each of these parties forming government twice.

It appeared that Pakistan was moving toward a two-party system. However, it should be noted that the PPP did not get an absolute majority in neither of the two elections when it was able to form the government with the help of other smaller parties. The PML-S, because of the Muslim League’s base in Punjab, was however, able to sweep the poll both in 1990 and in 1997 and form the government on its own.

The regional parties in Pakistan like the Mutahida Qawmi Movement (MQM) in Sind and the National Awami Party in the NWFP and the Baluch National Party in Baluchistan have done well but in their own provinces. The MQM is a major regional and ethnic party. In fact, it’s the third largest party in the country after the PPP and the PML-S. There are other ethnic parties which also do well in certain areas and some time play a role at the national level when the major party does not have adequate majority. The religious parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami the Jamiat al Ulamai Islam led by Maulana Fazalur Rahman, the Jamiatal Ulamai Pakistan in combination or on their own cannot make much of an impact as their electoral base is limited. Jamiatal Ulamai Islam has strong pockets of influence in Baluchistan and in the NWFP.

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Its late leader Maulana Mufti Mahmood was the chief minister of lhe province in coalition with National Awami Party in the early seventies. The fractured nature of the political parties in Pakistan was reflected during October 2002 elections in which some 71 parties were registered by the Election Commission. However, there are about nine Muslim Leagues, three PPPs and similarly most of the religious parties are represented by their factions which split away from their parent parties and are now contesting as independent parties. In that election, no party secured a clear majority. Observers say that the results have been manipulated by the military regime which had exiled three national leaders of the national parties from the country and debarred them from participating in the election. Shortly before the poll, Musharraf had declared himself as the President for the next five years.

The emergence of an alliance of fundamentalist parties called the Muttahida Majlise Amal (MMA) was another sign of the weakness of the democratic movement and the manipulation of the poll by the military rulers. Since no party was in a position to form a government, the military pressurised some PPP members to defect and help the PML(Q) to form the government.

The PML (Q) government headed by Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali is a weak government as it is wholly obliged to the General for its existence. Attempts are made to get the MMA to support the government but the opposition is insisting that the amendments including the LFO incorporated in the constitution be purged from it and Gen. Musharraf resign from the army to be the President as a President in uniform was against the Constitution. There is a constitutional deadlock in the National Assembly and so far there is no chance of a compromise.

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