Modernizing political parties in South Asia
Twitter: In Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka the people have signaled that they don’t want ruling families in power in perpetuity. And yet, these families are just not ready to take the hint, writes Adnan Rehmat
Pakistan’s protracted and dull process of democratic transition between elected governments is being exacerbated by the poor quality of democracy within political parties. Both are interlinked and need to change.
However, the case for greater democratization within political parties and modernizing them is not indigenous to Pakistan alone. The same is true for political parties, including the main governing and opposition groups across South Asia, including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal.
National elections are expected in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka within the next several months (the Maldives just had theirs last month). Over 100 million new voters have been enrolled in all these countries since their last elections – over 10 million in Pakistan alone. And similarly in the preceding elections before that.
And yet if you were a new voter, you would be forgiven for thinking little had changed within parties for ages in terms of leaders in charge, governance structures, policy and decision making and inclusivity towards members that can influence leaders. And this would mean a psychological disassociation with parties – the relatively lower electoral turnouts in recent elections in most these countries would seem to confirm this tendency.
And therein lies the challenge – growing voters are confronted by ageing leaders of political parties that neither speak the language of hundreds of millions of millennial voters or connect with them on their core interests such as upward mobility and demand for efficient urban futures.
From the Begums of Bangladesh to the Bhuttos and Sharifs of Pakistan– time stands still within their parties even though the societies within which the parties are based have moved on.
One key characteristics of most parties that have been in power in the South Asian states over the past several decades is their dynastic leaderships. From the Begums of Bangladesh to the Bandaranaikes and Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka to the Bhuttos and Sharifs of Pakistan to the Gandhis of India – time stands still within their parties even though the societies within which the parties are based have moved on with their egalitarian and citizen-centric political aspirations.
Even where there has been a break with tradition – Narendra Modi in India and Imran Khan in Pakistan – the non-dynastic leaders have been in power within their own parties for seemingly unending years. Khan has been chairman of his party for 27 years. That’s longer than most monarchs in many countries in the vicinity of South Asia. Little wonder his promises of change ring hollow.
While over 100 political parties are registered in Pakistan, barely a dozen of these have been voted to power to govern national or provincial governments. The trust deficit in the ability of these parties to meet public expectations is at an all-time low in part due to dynastic leaderships – most top leaders are in their 70s now. Sharif is seeking to be prime minister a fourth time.
Pakistani parties have stubbornly resisted modernization or broadened political representation in sync with changing demographics or improving governance through inclusive approaches in a plural polity. This kind of politics is a process of diminishing returns. The quality of democracy within parties is the kind of democracy Pakistan is sick of. Other South Asian states practicing democracy are not much different.
The unfortunate jailings, exiles and assassinations of leaders in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives are signs the system wants their parties but not their ruling families in power in perpetuity. And yet these families – many of whose members’ services to democracy in the never-ending struggle against authoritarianism and military dictatorships are not under contention – are not ready to take the hint.
What can be done? If democracy is for the masses, then the majorities need to be engaged in democratic processes – from being voters to supporters to leaders of parties. South Asian societies are younger in median age of citizens than they have ever been in history. In Pakistan alone 65% of the population – 120 million – is under 25. The parties need to reform and modernize with the primary goal being becoming fit for aspirations and interests of the younger majorities.
Admittedly this is easier said than done but then political leadership in democracies is all about keeping politics and their parties relevant and future-fit. Senior leaders of the party don’t have to quit politics. They can stay in charge of their parties if they want but either retire from electoral politics or vacate their party leadership positions, making way for more dynamic and capable hands.
This process begins with open and plural elections within parties. This is the way to inclusive, plural and representative political solutions in changing societies. Having founded them, families may ‘own’ political parties in the old sense, but their ownership does not extend to democracy. The health and leadership of political parties should be in the hands of emerging leaders attuned to the times and voters.
— Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.