When political parties and movements become weak, democracy becomes weak, too. It is important that political parties are organized around principles, ideas and causes, from where strategies, action plans,and concrete implementation follow. If parties and groups just have a list of things they dislike and want to change, but have little or no broader foundation of ideas, principles and visions, it becomes risky, unsound, and unsafe. True, campaigns can do some of this, but with focus on more limited and specific issues; yet, they, too, should be tied to broader ideas and principles.

​In our time, political parties seem to lose some of their almost unconditional following that they used to have a generation or two ago. I remember that in my childhood and youth in Norway there were people, who were so party-loyal in support of the Labour Party that we as youngsters were told not to upset friends and relatives with challenging remarks when they visited. They might go sour and leave the Sunday dinner early! Although politics was mostly for men, I had an aunt who was a staunch Labour Party supporter.

In the 1950s and 60s, Norway and many other European countries were close to one-party states since the Labour Party would gain comfortable majority in elections. Their members saw themselves as the only ones be right and fair, lifting up ordinary people from poor salaries, long working hours, cramped housing, and a class-based education and health system. Yes, they built the modern welfare state. But if the conservatives had been in power, they would probably have had to do much of the same, albeit probably at a slower pace and with more private-sector participation. Today, though, even the parties in the centre and on the right, have realized that the welfare state and the relatively small differences between people are indeed assets for further innovation, growth and development. Unfortunately, the right-wing wind which has blown over Europe allows yet again greater differences to creep in – in broad daylight.

​The reason for that may be that the European social democratic parties, and earlier, the more socialist-oriented Labour Parties have ‘forgotten’ their roots and purpose. They have often become administrators of the welfare state, which is costly, and they have begun to cut in services. That should be something for the Conservatives to do, not for the people’s parties on the left. The left may also not have realized who ‘their people’ are in our time; notably immigrants and refugees in Europe, children of mothers and parents who have fallen on the roadside and find little or no purpose in life, young people with little education and thus scant opportunities to find good jobs and lead a good life. These groups should flock to the Labour Parties – if the parties had been able to formulate the people’s needs, develop policies, and simply speak a language they would understand so they could be engaged. It is a characteristic of being ‘outsider’ and ‘under-class’ that one cannot formulate own needs. Yet, there are as many potentially clever and resourceful people in this group as in the other classes, but they need assistance to release it, get included and move ahead.

​If the 20 percent or more of the downtrodden in Europe are not given opportunities, they may become a risk; and they may vote for populist parties on the right, those parties that I at the beginning of the article said lack a foundation, those who ‘fish in troubled waters’. Many have xenophobic, racist, and anti-social attitudes, yes, all in a time when the world has become a ‘global village’ – when most people have realised that we are all the same. Strange! And strange, too, that the Labour Parties cannot transform and modernise their parties, in Europe and beyond, to include their new base of voters. They are responsible for it having become a time of political uncertainty – not alone, of course, but more was to be expected of them. In France and also in Germany, we have seen the outcome of Labour parties not being able to modernise their parties.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron managed to establish aloosely put together ‘party’, which won the elections in 2017. But ‘En Marche!’ is not really a party, not yet at least, and it belongs precisely to a culture, which makes me say we live in a time of political uncertainty. When voters can join a group with unclear ideas and foundation, but with captivating propaganda, then that is risky for democracy. Was Macron clever? Yes, he was, and he seems a decent (enough) politician. But what if he was not; and what if he changes direction during his term or terms, then there is no party to hold him accountable, with thorough debates, reasoning, and loyalty to members and voters.

In USA, Donald Trump belongs to the conservative Republican Party, but he is as much an independent, a ‘loose cannon’, feeling above the old parties. Again, that is a very risky type of leader; someone can do what he thinks at the moment; taking decisions that lack enough scrutiny and consideration within a party before decisions are made. It is only to some extent cushioned by the civil service. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that in America, there are only two major political parties. That is not quite enough for a democracy to be healthy.

​In the UK, Theresa May’s Conservative Party has dug into the Labour Party’s voters in the centre; and she often uses slogans that belonged to Labour in the past, saying she wants to build a Britain for all. But we all know that Conservatives don’t want that; we know they are for the private sector and the wealthy, emphasizing growth and the individual’s right to compete and win, or lose, but the latter they don’t say. With a minimum of political science understanding, and a PM ought to have quite a bit of that, it is obvious that Conservatives like Theresa May talk against better knowledge. Yet, it is allowed to believe that conservative competition and class society are good for growth and development (but not for redistribution of wealth); but not good to hide the truth.

Still, there is a need for the two or three poles in politics; left and right, and a liberal centre. They keep an eye on each other so the state doesn’t become too powerful and the private sector doesn’t either; and the centre can be those who challenge both and ask questions. Sadly, today most seem to like high military spending; especially the right since arms production and trade in the West make profits at home and in exports. The military rearmament in our time is a major reason for why I say we live in a time of political uncertainty. What if just a fraction of those weapons were to be used, in the Middle East and elsewhere? Maybe Saudi-Arabia, intertwined with the West, is much less stable than Iran, which has gone it more on its own? Is it US, the occupier of South Korea that is less to be trusted than North-Korea in that part of the world?

​In Pakistan, the sitting government has support from its PML-N party, although the leadership is out. It is a solid enough party and it may well win next election, too; not only supporters but opponents may be willing to see that. It is a conservative party with its base in the country’s by far largest province of Punjab. PPP is, or it has been, a highly respectable party, leaning to the left. I believe PPP will again be influential, but it may take a couple of elections. The liberal, but not quite predictable PTI party is said to have done well in implementation ofpolicies in the KP province, where it has majority. However, it has not paid enough attention to building a real party; instead it has focused on its popular leader, runaways from other parties, and some new ones. It has great support from jobless and other youth, who are often disillusioned and quite desperate, and it represents something new. There are also other important political parties in the country, but the three are the most essential.

In conclusion, I believe it is a problem for Pakistan that political parties focus on individuals and families to run the parties; it is not only undemocratic but it makes the parties fragile since leaders have to change from time to time, and loyalty should be towards ideas, principles and causes, not only to persons. This leads to political uncertainty in the country, even fragility and risk of authoritarian rule.

In Europe and America, the old political parties have almost done the opposite; they have become bureaucracies, who don’t change fast enough to understand and react to the problems of their societies and the world. They leave their countries open to risky populist parties’ influence, even if they ‘only’ get 20-30 percent of the votes in elections. Whichever way, I believe I am right to say that we live in a time of political uncertainty.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.