Regime Change, Matlab Party Change?

Part of every decent commentary about Pakistan's impending (and possibly stillborn) democratic transition these days is a mention of the chaos, corruption and misrule of civilian governments in the 1990s. If Pakistan wants democracy, it seems, it must suffer from the worst kind of democratic politics imaginable: conditions that eventually are chanced upon by an angered or ambitious Chief of Army Staff as an obvious reason for military rule, and thus the cycle turns around again.

Why, though? It seems to me that one of the biggest obstacles to the sustainability of democracy in Pakistan is the character of the parties involved, and particularly their leaders. Apart from some parties that have regional power (the MMA in NWFP and Baluchistan, the MQM in Sindh), the only parties capable of forming national governments are the PML(N) and the PPP, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. And these two, far from being the defenders of democracy, have become democracy's greatest liabilities.

Both Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto are deeply comprised individuals. They both have pending charges against them for corruption and worse -- some trumped up, most accurate -- and have been in exile for several years in Riyadh and London respectively. They are also two of the richest individuals in the country: Bhutto owning vast agricultural lands in Sindh and Sharif running industrial concerns in Punjab. There is no doubt that both enriched themselves and their closest allies while in power, and empoverished the country in the process.

This does not excuse Musharraf's continued military rule, or martial law in general. But it does lead us to question the character of those who are meant to lead the movement for democracy.

Both the PPP and the PML(N) are associations in the Weberian sense: they have rules and overseers executing those rules, a common purpose. And yet, both leaders stand above these rules and use their parties, in effect, as their own personal fiefdoms. Weber himself described political parties as groups of elites ('notables') brought together to defend their own privilege. That was a fairly accurate description of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, but is completely inappropriate in an age of mass democracy.

There are times that you have to put up with the democratic setup you have, rather than the ideal. But this, I think, is not one of them. I believe a key action that these parties could do to tun this current farce into a real democratic revolution is to remove Bhutto and Sharif as the leaders of their parties. Enough PPP politicians have resigned over Bhutto's decision to trade support Musharraf's continued presidency in return for immunity from prosecution ('the National Reconciliation Ordinance') to signal a lack of confidence in her rule. Nawaz's party is much more of his own creation, but then the kind of brinkmanship that characterised his return and re-exile betrays as much megalomania than strategy.

In established democracies in the West, changing party leadership is a relatively simple affair. In Britain, the annual party conference or the parliamentary party (the Conservative Party's '1922 Committee') determines leadership in the event of no confidence or a challenge; in America, the institution of primary elections ensures public say in who stands for election from which party. In South Asia, this is more difficult: who knows what bonds of obligation, threat and opportunity tie party higher-ups to the leadership? And yet, there are many senior politicians in the PPP with much closer ties to ZA Bhutto's party than the bloodline that Benazir carries forward. Nawaz Sharif's perspective can be more honestly represented by someone with less political liability. It's time for both these characters to step down or be pushed out.

India's party system is instructive. No one could ever say that Indian elections are not personal. And yet, no one could ever reduce the BJP as an organisation to LK Advani or Atal Bihari Vajpayee; the head of the ruling Congress Party, a Gandhi, is not Prime Minister. The parties, at union and state levels, maybe be characterised by and perhaps even dominated by their leaders, but unlike Pakistan, no party can be completely reduced to the person of its leader.

What's missing is the building up of party organisations, the de-personalisation of these institutions and the creation of cadres more committed to principles or an organisation than to the individual leaders. The foundations for this are already there: this spring, party workers from the PPP and the PML, as well as the MMA / JUI, were marching in front of the Supreme Court calling for an end to military rule, sometimes suffering beatings and teargas, with hardly a word from their leaders-in-exile. To me, that picture was the true face of democratic revolution, now shrouded by elite shenanigans.

All politics are personal, but if Pakistanis are to have a democratic future, it seems critically important that the personalities of extant political elites do not get in the way.

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