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September '05: Restoring public confidence in political par

Restoring public confidence in political parties
(September 2005)
This issue of individualland spotlight will attempt to plead the case that political parties are essential for a society and that the 58 years of demonization of parties in Pakistan has to stop in the interests of the citizens of the country. Pakistanis are extremely interested in politics and want to participate but in an environment where party leaders are hanged, trashed or at the very least considered the mother of all evils; it is no wonder that citizens do not use parties as vehicles of their political expression. This leads to the conditions where parties are accused of not articulating people's interests. Even in spite of all these odds, parties have survived and have time and time again proved that they are the necessary buffer between peaceful articulation of interests and anarchy. Thus, the question that is before us is how to restore public confidence in political parties and strengthen them? This spotlight does not have any concrete suggestions but is essentially an attempt to win the case for fostering public opinion on why this is important for that is half the battle.

In a discussion on the state of democracy in the Balkans, a quote on the Freedom House website perhaps best sums up the current state of affairs in Pakistan. The quote is `` Elections do not change things. If elections were about changing things, they would have been banned." After the conclusion of the first two phases of the local bodies' elections in Pakistan and nomination papers submitted for the third phase, a lot of political analysts and observers would perhaps agree with this statement. Amidst allegations of pre poll, election day and post poll rigging the question that is being asked by concerned citizens is that whether the local bodies elections were an exercise in futility? Individu-land would like to submit that it is imperative that serious questions regarding how the electoral exercise was conducted need to be asked in addition to documentation of important lessons learnt ,particularly with reference to the upcoming general elections in 2007. However to disregard the very importance of conducting elections at the local level would be suicidal at best and undemocratic at worst. Elections, be they general or local are important vehicles through which the public will is expressed and even though serious questions as to whether or not the election results actually represent the public will can be asked, it is a fact that the people of Pakistan did participate in these elections and voted. However, for this issue of the individu-spotlight, we would like to pose a question to our reader which is: How can we restore public confidence in political parties of Pakistan?

An almost schizophrenic quality of Pakistan is that it is the most politicized society existing for the last 58 years in de politicized terms. A two minute conversation between two Pakistanis is bound to involve a discussion or at the very least a reference to the political situation of the country. The individuals concerned may express their disdain for political parties but they are sure to acknowledge that they do live in an extremely political society which has not only a perspective on local politics but would also be reasonably familiar with regional and international politics. Even in a rural set up where literacy levels are low, the local tea house would be the scene of a literate person reading out the newspaper to a group of people gathered around him. The border areas of the country are home to listeners of BBC and Voice of America radio services which are often in their local languages. According to the National Public Opinion Survey conducted last year by the now finished Pakistan Legislative Strengthening Consortium,(PLSC) 17 percent of the respondents had access to at least two media sources whereas 36 % had at least one. Their sources of information on political and economic situation of the country was overwhelmingly from the state owned PTV (43%) , 37 percent from family and friends, 18 % from Radio Pakistan and 12 percent from the public space of Chopols and Behtaks. In spite of notices in public places prohibiting political discussions, it would be safe to conclude that the people of Pakistan are very much interested in the political situation of the country because as the PLSC survey revealed 19 % of the respondents did have an active interest in politics.

However, this is also a fact that political parties in Pakistan have been demonized and one would often hear disdain for parties in general. The same survey also revealed that 62 % of the respondents thought that parties only ``served their own interests" which were not necessarily interests of the people. It is significant to note that only 13 % considered political parties as vehicles for expression of public interests. Considering these figures clubbed by subjective everyday experiences, it is not surprising that an environment exists where party less elections are considered & conducted not once but a number of times.

Thus, we have in Pakistan a politicalized society with a strong mis-trust of political parties. Political scientists believe that parties are essential to any political system particularly a democracy. Parties are necessary because they are believed to serve as a platform for public expression primarily because they do it through interest articulation and interest aggregation. Interest articulation implies that parties define and express a group's needs and wants in a way that the public and political system can understand. Interest aggregation means the process by which a party brings together various viewpoints on an issue. A party develops enough common ideas among enough people so that pressure can be brought to bear upon the political system. By articulating the interest of their support base and engaging in political aggregation, political parties win people over; broaden their support base and thus gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

It is unfortunate that parties in Pakistan have not been (a) allowed nor (b) able to do either interest articulation nor aggregation. Since the creation of Pakistan, fifty eight years ago, political parties have been existing in extremely challenging circumstances. Systematic attempts at de-politicization of society, hanging, arresting of political leaders and members occurred, leading many political workers to either go underground or leave the country. Persecution of parties in the name of accountability , ban on student politics, conducting even non party general elections, frequent military interventions are all factors that posed challenges to parties .Thus, it is not surprising that given the extreme straitjacketing of political parties, parties are dominated by either a few family figures or have become personality cults. In a heavily regulated society like Pakistan where just to hold a poetry recital in the city ,one has to seek the permission of the local District Coordination Officer, where Section 144 is imposed in a jiffy , it is no wonder that individuals do not turn towards political parties for interest expression. It is interesting however, that political parties are constantly blamed for the cause of Pakistan's political problems but each time a military man took over the reigns of the country, he created a political party for his support. If political parties were so ineffective, unnecessary and cause of all evil then why was there a need for the creation of military backed parties? This leads some political commentators to conclude that this very act of creation of a party by a military man is itself the greatest unspoken acceptance of the necessity and effectiveness of political parties.

Political parties are based on the classical notion of Lord Acton who said, `` I disagree with you but will fight for your right to disagree with me," It is time to create a political environment in Pakistan where there is competition of ideas instead of the present situation where there is a competition of might, keeping the citizens voice, expressed through different political parties, totally out of the equation.

Individu-land , through this September spotlight, would also like to submit that parties are perhaps one of the few binding forces amongst the people across the four provinces .For instance, which other institution/platform is available for the young man of Chagai ,the young woman of Mirpurkhas , the young lawyer from Kohat and the young student from Sialkot on an egalitarian basis expect a national political party? Politics is about ideas and parties are about expression of those ideas in the public market. Instead of letting each party put up a stall and try their luck at attracting customers, shrinking their space to operate does not either serve the cause of democracy nor the much touted national interest. A nation is about people as our political parties.

Therefore it is important that this fundamental question of how to restore the public confidence in political parties be examined. A good starting point, in individu-land's opinion, is to stop the systematic demonization of parties in an effort to depoliticize society and accept that political parties are organized and peaceful platforms for citizens' expression & models of investment in terms of finances, human resources and administrative set up should be examined for Pakistani political parties. For this purpose, public funding of political parties may also be considered.




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