Earlier this week, the PML-N government unveiled its budget for 2014-15. Not unexpectedly, Ishaq Dar’s speech introducing the budget contained few surprises and even less evidence of innovative or original thinking. Instead, we were treated to more of the same; missed fiscal targets, the slashing of subsidies due to the dictates of the IMF, tax exemptions for the rich, miniscule levels of spending on health and education, and virtually no relief for the poor. Questions of broader structural reform within the economy and within the government itself, remain unaddressed, with the ruling party content to simply parrot the failed mantra of trickle-down growth. Once again, the PML-N has demonstrated its slavish, unquestioning adherence to the dogma of free markets and unbridled capitalism, justifying its economic policies in the name of being ‘business-friendly’.

That the PML-N’s economic plans have taken this form is not surprising. What is arguably of greater interest is the complete and total lack of any meaningful counter-narrative from the opposition parties. Instead of zeroing in on the faulty economic logic that underpins the PML-N’s complete and total inability to improve the lives of the millions mired in poverty in Pakistan, the PPP, PTI, PML-Q, and others have chosen, instead, to remain silent, directing their energies towards different issues that, while important, do little to directly challenge the PML-N on its record of governance. Thus, for example, Imran Khan and the PTI remain fixated upon the question of rigging in the 2013 elections, using it as a means through which to pressurize the government even though it is abundantly clear that this strategy is unlikely to yield meaningful results. Meanwhile, the PTI government in KP has itself done little to distinguish itself in terms of its management of the province. The PPP has followed a similar trajectory, restricting its role as an opposition party to the mouthing of empty rhetoric while simultaneously living up to its reputation for poor governance in Sindh. Even as the budget was being announced, the MQM was in the process of imploding, scrambling to react to the news of Altaf Hussain’s arrest in the United KIngdom. The PML-Q, a spent force clinging on to its few seats in parliament, only registered on the political radar recently when its leadership met with Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri in London, hoping to create a ’grand alliance’ to oppose the PML-N. Ultimately, these plans came to naught, as was always going to be the case with an attempt to create a political formation on the basis of empty opportunism.

To understand the poverty of thought that characterizes Pakistan’s political parties, it is necessary to examine some of the fundamental features that have shaped their growth and evolution over time. At a basic level, it is clear that Pakistan’s parties are not informed or driven by ideology, and that there is little to actually differentiate between them on substantive questions of policy. While it was the case that parties like the National Awami Party and the PPP adhered to left-wing politics in the 1960s and the 1970s, parties in contemporary Pakistan have no such inclinations. Instead, to the extent that they do engage in policymaking, they remain in thrall to mainstream capitalist economics and the continued pursuit and protection of elite agendas. Rather than acting as vehicles for the aggregation and articulation of the interests of their constituents and voters, Pakistan’s parties inhabit a space in which the pursuit of politics through personal ties of kinship, loyalty, and patronage at the local level militates against the development of broader policy programmes.

There are several reasons why this is the case. For one, repeated episodes of military rule in Pakistan have had a deeply damaging effect on the country’s political parties. Every military regime in Pakistan has historically inaugurated its reign by banning political parties, arresting their leaders and workers, and dismantling their organizational apparatuses. This has usually been accompanied by the announcement and eventual implementation of non-party based elections, particularly at the local level, which have facilitated the buying off of quiescent politicians, the strengthening and entrenchment of local leaders capable of winning elections without the support of party machines, and the cobbling together of ‘democratic’ ruling coalitions brought together by a common willingness to work with the military, rather than any broader vision for the future of Pakistan. As a result of all of this, periods of democracy in Pakistan have been blighted by the presence of political parties struggling to overcome the fragmentation foisted upon them by different dictatorial regimes. It is this fragmentation that lies at the heart of the dysfunction that defines Pakistan’s major political parties.

The problem is exacerbated by another reality of Pakistani politics, namely the presence of powerful local level politicians with stable vote banks and effective networks of influence and mobilization. In a context where parties lack organizational strength for the reasons described above, relying upon traditional elite politicians to win elections becomes the default strategy for parties seeking to come to power. Rather than being exercises in which different ideologies and policies vie for the support of the voting public, elections in Pakistan, particularly in the rural areas, become contests in which local elites compete to mobilize votes on the basis of economic coercion, social status, and personal linkages. Patronage also plays a huge role in the process, with parties, particularly those in government, acting as little more than conduits through which local elites access state resources to cultivate and maintain the support of their individual factions.

Due to their shared history of dissolution at the hands of different military regimes, Pakistan’s parties have struggled to develop the types of organizational apparatuses and ideological identities that could allow them to engage in the political process in a more substantive way. At the same time, the entrenchment of local elites as political leaders, and the reliance of parties on these elites for electoral gains, has created a situation that impedes the development of party structures independent of these elites, and also allows these elites to exercise a disproportionate amount of control over policymaking and agenda-setting.  This is as true of new parties as it is of the old, with the PTI being an excellent case in point. As such, it is only to be expected that Pakistan’s ruling parties lack the capacity to challenge the elite-centric status quo, and that oppositional politics is fuelled by opportunism above all else.

Given the role played by military governments in shaping the current political arena, it stands to reason that repeated rounds of democratic elections, free of the influence of the military establishment, might be able to push Pakistan’s parties towards reform. As citizens learn how their votes can be tools of accountability, and as parties are forced to cater to an electorate ever more interested in service delivery and effective governance, it is likely that Pakistan’s parties will have to become more democratic, more inclusive, and more attuned to the needs of their voters if they wish to survive. Until such a point is reached, however, it is important to remember that for all their democratic trappings, Pakistan’s parties are little more than clubs facilitating the continued control of a small political oligarchy, and that it is important to subject all of them to vigorous critique in the interests of creating a more egalitarian and participatory Pakistan.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.