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Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving Between Dictatorship and Democracy

Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving Between Dictatorship and Democracy is a good addition to Pakistan’s corpus of literature on political science, even if it does not specifically incorporate a perspective on the country’s political economy.

The book’s 14 chapters are separated into three broad areas: form, function and survival. ‘Form’ discusses the party system, with chapters on the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM) and leftist and religious parties. ‘Function’ analyses how the party system works with regards to political contact at the ground level, candidate-party linkages, women’s exclusion, governance and opposition. And ‘survival’ refers to the political parties’ resilience in the face of challenges being mounted from the military, judiciary and foreign policy perspective.

The editors — Mariam Mufti, Sahar Shafqat and Niloufer Siddiqui — begin by stating: “Pakistan has long had a turbulent relationship with democracy. Since its independence in August 1947, the country has experienced four military coups, ratified three constitutions, experimented with both presidential and parliamentary forms of government, and held 10 general elections.

“In addition to dismissing elected governments, the military has engaged in a range of ‘soft coup’ behaviours, such as supporting new political actors, to make dents in the vote banks of existing parties, particularly those that have fallen out of favour.”

The military’s role in influencing political parties is discussed throughout the book; Saeed Shafqat, Philip E. Jones, Tabinda M. Khan, Ayesha Siddiqa, Christopher Clary and Mohammad Waseem emphasise it — Waseem calls it Pakistan experiencing “Establishmentarian Democracy.”

A very interesting facet is the discussion — specifically by Saeed Shafqat and Waseem — of the patron-client relationship, whereby political parties act as clients of military patronage. Patronage politics appears in several chapters. In ‘Religious Parties: The Politics of Denominational Diversity in an Islamic Republic’, Johann Chacko writes that voters prefer patronage over piety and that’s why religious parties have remained electorally uncompetitive, particularly outside Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A useful book mapping out Pakistan’s political parties allows for intriguing analytical approaches by using a mix of contributors, which includes young scholars alongside established names

Sameen A. Mohsin Ali looks at how bureaucrats are cultivated as clients of political parties, while Saeed Shafqat views Nawaz Sharif’s defying of “rule-based economic and political decision-making” as the result of his obsession with personal loyalty and personalised governance. Clary writes that Pakistani voters are more concerned about patronage than “programmatic policy” and foreign policy agenda-setting.

There are standalone insights as well. In ‘Pakistan People’s Party: From Populism to Patronage’, Jones discusses how the PPP went from a national to a regional party between 1970 and 2013 (or even 2018). Tabinda M. Khan is of the view that the PTI has become a “catch-all party” and been co-opted rather than offering a good alternative to mainstream political parties. Tahir Naqvi, meanwhile, weaves the MQM’s rise around the narrative of sacrifice of earlier Mohajir generations for Pakistan, which will likely withstand the party’s present factionalisation.

Another recurring theme is how most parties, both political and regional, came into existence on the back of social movements.

Leftist and religious parties are analysed somewhat as pressure groups that are not electorally significant, but use mobilisation as “bargaining power” to further their respective causes and groups. A relationship with the state is the ideal condition for denominational parties, as they cannot seize power through elections.

On the other hand, the politics of leftist parties has created space for ethnic regional parties, minorities, women and labour. Baloch and KP-based parties have not been analysed in the book, though ethnic regional parties are referenced in the chapter on leftist parties.

The uncertainty of the political system in which parties operate is another topic of discussion. Sahar Shafqat views the agitational politics of opposition parties (by indulging in extra-parliamentary means) through the prism of “regime uncertainty” in which Pakistan’s democracy functions.

Yasser Kureshi, in ‘Judicial Politics in a Hybrid Democracy: Pakistan’s Judiciary and Political Parties’, considers democracy being “unconsolidated” and “unstable” given the tug-of-war between different institutions. Meanwhile, Mohsin Ali writes about political parties operating in “short-term horizons.”

In the ‘function’ section, the essayists probe how political parties operate. In ‘Who Do Politicians Talk To? Political Contact in Urban Punjab’, Asad Liaqat, Ali Cheema and Shandana Khan Mohmand discuss local-level politicians and party workers being the “political machines” of brokerage, through which higher-end politicians find out about voter demands, and convey their electoral needs to the ground level.

In the chapter co-written by Hassan Javid and Mariam Mufti, candidate-party linkages are mapped through the prism of the party heavyweight, the party worker, the aspirational candidate and the independent electable. The other question this chapter addresses is why candidates show loyalty to political parties despite having independent vote banks and control of resources.

In ‘Women in Electoral Politics: An Account of Exclusion’, Sarah Khan takes a less-discussed view that the much-appreciated reserved seats for women only work as a “safety valve” to show up numbers, but are not effective in women’s entry in direct politics “beyond minimums.” Even the recent five percent candidate quota has been used to merely check the box, as women candidates were fielded from uncompetitive constituencies. Mohsin Ali wonders whether it is personal gain, programmatic efficiency or electoral patronage political parties operate by cultivating the bureaucracy.

It was the ace sociologist Hamza Alavi who, many decades ago, wrote about political parties being manipulated by the military and the indirect intervention of the military. The idea is also touched upon in this book; Siddiqa, as well as some other contributors, writes about the military’s indirect intervention in governance when it is not in power.

The theme of “arbiter” is also examined. In ‘The Kingmaker: Pakistan’s Military and Political Parties’, Siddiqa labels the military as the “arbiter” without whose support no political party can gain power. Meanwhile, Kureshi marks the judiciary as being the “arbiter” as it redefines the tussles between the military and political parties. The judiciary has not resolved the “institutional dissonance” between political parties and the military. In the three respective visions of praetorian democracy, judicial democracy and parliamentary democracy, there is continuing tension and it leads to instability.

Clary, in ‘Parties and Foreign Policy in Pakistan’ states that there are high costs for politicians to indulge in setting foreign policy agendas, given the military’s dominance in this area and the patronage concerns of the voters. Behind the scenes, there might be more scope for “policy heterodoxy”, yet political parties have not been able to influence Pakistan’s foreign policy towards India, the United States or Afghanistan. Political parties do have space to drum up hawkish narratives on foreign policy, however, and public opinion is open to being set by the elite consensus.

Waseem, in the conclusion, writes: “The chapters in this volume make clear that the ‘establishment’ — short-hand for the military-bureaucracy nexus — is a permanent feature of the way political parties define their goals and means. Thus Pakistan is an ‘establishmentarian’ democracy. The rise and fall of political parties must be analysed with reference to the establishment, which has been responsible for dominating the political system, manipulating political parties, engineering elections, shaping the media, and controlling all other manifestations of a free democratic order.”

Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving Between Dictatorship and Democracy is a useful book indeed, and the mix of contributors — young scholars alongside established names — allows for intriguing approaches. Although one would have liked to see a chapter on the Election Commission of Pakistan — as well as on the parliament — to situate the political parties’ performance through an institutional lens, the book achieves its purpose of mapping Pakistan’s political parties in multi-varied contexts through a heterodox narrative.

The reviewer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be contacted at

Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving Between Dictatorship and Democracy
Edited by Mariam Mufti, Sahar Shafqat and Niloufer Siddiqui
Folio, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834211

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 16th, 2021


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