Political parties are not what they used to be anywhere in the world, somebody said about European and American politics recently. The Democrats in USA failed to see modern issues well enough before last presidential election, and their organisation style and decision making ways seemed also to be too hierarchical, making new ideas left on the outside, or with the more radical candidate Bernie Sanders, running as an Independent.

The current government in America bases its policies in the mentioned fields on the strange, out-dated thinking of the Republican Party, which in addition has an even stranger, populist president, Donald Trump. They want to reverse what Barack Obama achieved in expanding health coverage to more citizens. In the end, free health care has to become universal even in America. It is the world’s richest country, and it is the country that spends most money on health, in absolute terms and per capita. Yet, it doesn’t include all its citizens, which it easily can. Poorer countries, indeed Cuba, have a better and more inclusive health system than America.

What is it with the American Republicans, and also the Democrats, who cannot be able to achieve that? What is it with the two major parties in America when they cannot manage to place financing of college and university education higher on the agenda, leaving many young unable to get crucial education and skills? And what is it with the American parties when they have allowed economic, social and cultural differences to grow enormously in the last generation or so? Is it not a bankruptcy of the political parties’ thinking and a lack of ideas and concern? Yes, even voters should be asked why they have allowed it to happen.

In America as well in Europe, populist groups and parties, mostly on the far right, have gained support because the old parties have not been aware of to what extent the marginalised people have been left behind, and also because the technocrats in the parties have allowed a development where politicians have become less politicians and more bureaucrats. Parties have allowed selfish solutions that benefit the well-to-do, which also includes antisocial attitudes towards immigrants, refugees and others who need help. The social contract in any society requires that those who have, help and share with those who do not have.

In France, the recent election in May this year showed a practical centrist politician, Emmanuel Macron, win the presidency, not the right-wing Marine Le Pen, or a candidate from one of the established parties. Macron was in many ways a populist candidate, too, with a newly and loosely established party, En Marche! One could argue that the process wasn’t quite democratic, and it was certainly risky. Macron seems responsible, but it remains to be seen how he will rule. The fact that he managed to win and leave the established parties seriously wounded, especially his former Socialist Party, is indeed worrying. It shows to what extent and how suddenly the established parties and political structure can be in trouble.

New and relatively unproven politicians can take power in elections which have resemblance of political coup, with relatively low voter turnout. In France, I predict it will indeed go well. But what if it had been Marine Le Pen and National Front that had won? That could have happened, for example, if Macron had stepped wrong or been in a major scandal just before the election took place. Politics shouldn’t be gambling, and elections shouldn’t be unpredictable.

Referendums, with populist overtones, such as the Brexit vote should be avoided in future, and if used, referendums should be made advisory. It should be the parliamentarians that draw the conclusion. If there are two or three political groups or parties that can win elections, they shouldn’t be further from each other than for all to say they are acceptable, and that they can live well even under the rule of the opposition – even sometimes admitting that the opposition also can do certain things better..

In the Western democracies, especially in Europe, the political parties are still strong, such as in Germany, which has parliamentary elections on 24 September. The many professional and interest organisations, the employers and employees organizations, and so on, regulate how a country moves on, and how change takes place. The political parties are essential, indeed in elections, but they are not the only organizations that have democratic influence. Between elections, the mentioned organizations, and the civil society at large are important to hold steady discussions and make decisions based on reasoning and debate, take and give. If agreements cannot be reached around the table, the right to hold strikes and demonstrations exist, but there are rules and regulations for that, too.

In many developing countries, NGOs have for a good while now been seen as important, especially by foreign donors and also the United Nations. However, they cannot and should not replace government institutions, and, as a matter of fact, they have never done that in spite of much criticism of government institutions, with corruption, shortcomings in skills and lack of funds. As for Pakistan’s civil service, it is my opinion that it is better than people say, especially at local level, and at central level, I believe the civil servants are indeed knowledgeable and skilled. Yes, there is corruption in government institutions – and in the private sector and in NGOs. Work must continue to reduce corruption so that tax collection can increase, and so that people trust how the money is spent and how the politicians’ decisions are implemented. Also, the new local government system must be developed; it is essential for the country’s democratic development. As regards local NGOs, for them to play a more constructive role in development, I believe they should be membership organisations with clear ideological and other plans for their work. If they have membership, they can be run and controlled more democratically. Today, too many NGOs resemble private companies and fiefdoms of the founders and leaders. Sure, many do good work, too!

Finally, I must be allowed to say a few words about Pakistani politics and political parties, especially at this particular time when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been forced out of office. His party, which is built around him, will also be in some trouble now. Let my main point about Pakistani political parties, indeed PML-N, PPP and PTI, be that they are run too much around their founders and leaders, less around ideologies and concrete political plans. Ordinary political parties, which can develop democratically and live on after the founders and temporary leaders are gone, are in crisis in Pakistan. That is indeed worrying, especially for steady develop over time. Of course, democratic parties should have leaders are democratically elected. Let founders and former leaders have honorary roles, but not automatically power to decide. Maybe even our looking at the past, with frequent references to Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in public debate, is sometimes too much, especially if it is done superficially. Yet, unique political leaders like Jinnah should also be honoured. And today, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, irrespective of whether she wins next election, she will remain highly respected. She earned her status over the years through performance, not inheritance. In the end, political parties and elections are by the people and for the people; leaders guide, but it is the voters who decide.