There is no greater farce in our political landscape than the notion that we are a democracy in Pakistan. Not only do we fail miserably to ensure its basic requirements of such a dispensation are met—such as an informed electorate, free media or fair elections—but the very political parties formed to contest in this so-called democratic process are hardly democratic themselves.
Consider the evidence: Read the recent comments shared by senior leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. In a tweet, Jahangir Khan Tareen said that he is answerable only to Imran Khan and no one else.
There’s only one man in my life whom I consider my leader & to whom I’m answerable. His name is Imran Khan. I’ve stood by his side through thick and thin and will continue to do so till my last breath, IA. What others may say for their own strange reasons does not concern me .
— Jahangir Khan Tareen (@JahangirKTareen) April 1, 2019
Following in the footsteps of this declaration, Pervez Khattak of the PTI tweeted that everyone in the party is answerable to only one man: Imran Khan.
Jahangir Tareen has immense contribution for PTI. His loyalty with PTI is exemplary. He lives in the hearts of party workers. People need to keep their emotions under control or be ready to face the music. Everyone is answerable to only one man in the party & that is Imran Khan.
— Pervez Khattak (@PervezKhattakPK) April 1, 2019
The PTI is, however, not an exception when it comes to the cult-like worship of party leaders. The same holds true for most political parties in Pakistan. It is hard to imagine the Pakistan Peoples Party without a Bhutto holding the reins. PML-Nawaz boasts of its association with one man by giving his name to the party itself. And let’s not forget Altaf Hussain and his sole grip on the Muttahida Qaumi Movement from thousands of miles away. In all these cases, there is one common underlying organizing principle: these party heads have veto powers over all decisions. The only exception that comes to mind is the Jamaat-e-Islami. This party has been able to withstand a change of leadership from the founder onwards purely because of the strength of its organisation.
In a democracy as young as ours, we have created political parties that are mostly window-dressed to become eligible to contest elections. But we have failed to incorporate the very essence of democracy which is needed for the system to be truly effective: accountability. Most of our political parties are ‘created’ instead of being formed through organic movements. Hence, they are mostly centered around the personality of the main political leader. As a result of this, we see parties focused more on the whims and fancies of the leader than the ideology it is supposed to represent. It should be of no surprise then that politicians will jump to the defense of their leaders and announce massive strikes when the ego of these leaders are bruised instead of being offended by inequalities, discrimination or falling economic standards in society at large.
The party heads choose their inner circle based on how loyal they will be to them and their own goals. While these political workers will contest elections and will be put in office through the vote of ordinary people, their loyalties will always be for those who gave them the ticket to contest the seat, and never for those who voted them into power. Political parties are formed with weak organizational structures that do not allow for internal accountability. In fact, the very existence of the parties is dependent on how strong a hold the party leader has over the tiers below.
For those who like to manage politics like a puppet show, it is easier to keep political parties weak and dependent on one dominant leader. We all know it is easier to pressure one man or woman as opposed to an entire group. Given the sway that these leaders have over their supporters, it is easier to make the leader change his or her stance than encourage a change of opinion in the people who support them.
But for all our shortcomings, we are a democracy, on paper. Therefore, every five years these very same leaders need you and me and our votes. Let us use those occasions to hold accountable those for whom we cast votes and those who claim to represent our interests. We can no longer allow patronage to dictate loyalty.
The writer is a former city editor at The Express Tribune and former program manager at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA. She has an MA in Political Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada