Why are Political Parties Not Issue Oriented?

The implication in an earlier post (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) was that the non-existence of political parties advocating peace was evidence that voters did not want peace with neighboring countries.

Here we immediately fall into the trap of taking foreign concepts and applying them uncritically to alien situations. Are political parties in Pakistan really ‘political’ parties or are they something different?

When one thinks about it, there are no major political parties in Pakistan today that advocate anything specific in terms of policy. One would be hard pressed to unambiguously associate a party with big or small government, free trade or autarky, protection or competition, privatization or public sector dominance. What one does find are parties associated with various personalities all of whom promise to do the same things better than anyone else.

This observation calls for a closer look at the nature of democratic systems and the place of our own variant of democracy in that scheme. It seems reasonable to argue that an ideally functioning democratic order requires the existence of a sufficiently large number of undecided voters open to being persuaded to switch party affiliations. It is this pool of undecided voters that creates the possibility of a political party transforming itself from a representative of the minority to a representative of the majority. It is this possibility that motivates a political party to present an agenda that is most responsive to the preferences of the voting population. And this requires it to spell out its positions on issues of foreign and domestic policy like war, health care, land reform, minimum wage, etc.

The essential requirement of this system is the existence of a sufficiently large number of voters open to being persuaded to change their voting preference in response to a more attractive policy agenda. It is not necessary that all voters be in this category. The majority of voters in all democratic systems are lifelong supporters of one party or the other based on their agreement with the broad philosophies of the contending parties. But without the large pool of undecided voters such a system would cease to function because there would be no possibility of a minority party gaining enough marginal votes to win an election.

This brings us to the most critical aspect of such a system that remains neglected in discussions of democracy in Pakistan. What are the conditions that govern the behavior of undecided voters? First, the issues of policy must figure reasonably prominently in their hierarchy of needs and, second, they must have the confidence that their representatives would honestly and consistently represent the political preferences of the voters.

Now contrast this scenario with the reality in Pakistan. Here the calculus of the majority of voters is quite different because their basic physiological needs and rights remain unfulfilled and dominate their concerns. They look upon their representatives as potential lifelines to social protection, livelihoods, and access to basic entitlements; the political representation of their policy is a secondary concern at this stage of economic development.

In the absence of the rule of law, all political systems tend towards a system of patronage and the rational voter seeks to be on the side of the strongest patron. It is of little importance whether the moral or policy positions of the voter are in harmony with those of the representative. Voter behavior bears this out. Voters regularly elect representatives who they know to be dishonest and a constituency is much more likely to reject a representative in a subsequent election if he has proved to be without influence than if he has changed his political position or loyalty by 180 degrees.

It is no surprise therefore that the same people or families get elected time after time and freely change parties or swing from one policy position to another. And it is also no surprise that the primary objective of political parties is not to put together policy agendas (because they can take voter behavior for granted) but to try and win over as many of the strong patrons as they can to their side. The party with the greater number of patrons wins and then has to reward the patrons. The size of political cabinets is an indicator of this phenomenon.

This is not something aberrant. All social systems reflect their history and are shaped by them; change comes slowly at best. The mistake is to take a concept or institutional arrangement from a system at a different level of development and apply it to one where it is not relevant. The lens through which we examine reality has to be the right one for the task.

It is important therefore to understand the evolution of the democratic order in Europe. One would realize the important role of the options that opened out to commoners in Europe by the spread of the rule of law. The rule of law allowed the separation of the functions of political representation and social and economic protection. The voters were not dependent any more upon one representative for both. They could now vote their true political preferences and still be assured that their basic rights and entitlements would be protected. This milestone marked the emergence of ‘political’ parties in the real sense of the term.

Without equality under the law and access to impartial justice, Pakistan is not yet at a similar level of development. We may choose to call our system democratic but it is a uniquely peculiar democracy embedded in a hierarchical society operating without the rule of law. In such conditions, what we call political parties are really patronage groups. It is not surprising that these groups are owned by families, have dynastic transitions, and have no loyalties to any political positions or principles.

In the event of disagreements within groups, they give rise to splinter groups that are exactly similar except for the office-bearers. Hence the alphabet soup nomenclature of the groups. It is not something you can envisage in the UK; the existence of Labor (N), Labor (Q), and Labor (P) would be inconceivable.

This is a long explanation for why the absence of a political party in Pakistan advocating peace with neighbors might not actually signal the existence of a population that really believes in the virtue of confrontation with India.

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