Merit detours

June 4, 2023

A functioning democracy demands that political parties proactively work towards establishing merit-based systems

Merit detours


olitical structure in a society comprises the rules and regulations for political decisions, including legislation and enforcement, as well as organisations operating under these rules and regulations. In democratic societies, political organisations include political parties, non-governmental organisations, advocacy groups and special interest groups. These organisations only evolve within the framework of political institutions but are also the agents of change in such institutions.

Of these, political parties have the most significant role, both in shaping the political structure and voicing voters’ aspirations. Alternatively, political parties serve as a bridge between the people and the state upon gaining people’s support and electoral trust. There are more than two hundred political parties in Pakistan, most of them with religious and nationalist philosophies. For various reasons, only a handful of political parties fit into clear categories. This fact has created some hurdles to the development of an efficient, transparent and people-friendly democratic culture in the country.

Many factors may have been responsible for the underdevelopment of political parties in Pakistan. The obvious ones include a low level of social progress, an authoritarian political culture and disproportionate share of de facto power compared to de jure. Low literacy rates and poverty across the country have clear implications for the free participation of citizens in the electoral process. As far as voters’ turnout rate is concerned, it was around 51.7 per cent in the 2018 elections, with women’s turnout less than 10 per cent in some constituencies. These statistics show that the progress towards democracy is poor.

Most of the key political parties are accused of democratic mismanagement. The front-runners in these parties try to retain leadership positions for life, leaving little space for newcomers. Only once such leaders depart, their successors are trained to take over the role and lead the party.

Other important positions in the political parties are treated no differently. Key positions in most political parties are distributed among influential people in the parties. Sometimes these are allocated on the basis of kinship or proximity to the top leaders. Most of the political parties in Pakistan have never held transparent intra-party elections. Over and over again political, feudal and industrial elite have secured vital positions in most of the political parties on the basis of nominations without regard to merit.

When you disregard merit and establish/ run parties on the basis of kinship, patronage and tribal loyalties, a downfall is imminent. Political parties are the bedrock for a functional democracy. However, when there is no intra-party democracy, how can one expect the democracy to function as a whole?

On the surface, it looks like top leaders in major political parties are chosen by their central boards or working committees. However, bodies include non-elected associates. At the lowest tier of the hierarchical pyramid in the party, leaders at various ranks and/or the Central Executive Committees name the office holders. As a result, dominant people commanding intra-party influence get themselves elected to key positions in the party. Social and business minions with political motivations use similar tools in all parties. This is why political parties have not been successful in contributing substantively towards democratising the state and the society.

Almost all political parties in Pakistan, with the exception of a couple of right-wing religious parties have not been concerned with training and education of political workers. Even the rare parties are increasingly adopting the ways of mainstream parties. Quite frequently, the only communication in the parties is through the banal statements and speeches by the self-appointed leaders dispersed via the media or public gatherings.

During the late 1960s, there was a tradition of study circles for political workers. Party leaders and ideologues, even some second string leaders, wrote policy papers and several parties published dedicated newsletters. Unfortunately, these practices have died out.

Most of the parties in Pakistan are, to a great extent, established on patronage networks, translating into poor service delivery for the masses. There has always been a trade-off between patronage and quality of service delivery. There are three main aspects in a political party or party system in general to have a rigorous effect on this tradeoff: the degree of disintegration of the party system, the internal cohesion and the degree of polarisation.

Party fragmentation raises the information demand on the part of voters as there are more candidates and a lot more messages for them to weigh in the course of the general election. When political parties are highly factionalised, there are no clear career paths and projections. The viable candidates then have more incentives to concentrate on self-interest and try to enhance their individual standing.

When we disregard of merit and establish/ run parties on the basis of kinship, patronage and tribes, a downfall is imminent. Political parties are the bedrock for a functional democracy. However, when there is no intra-party democracy, how can one expect the democracy to function as a whole? It is time to stop taking merit detours and establish merit-based systems. Political parties ought to lead the way.

The writer is an assistant chief (policy) at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad

Merit detours