Political parties play an imperative role to ensure the smooth function of democracy in any country. They have somehow become an indispensable part of the modern democracies in the world. They provide a connection between politics and society. They provide particular political ideology ensuring the popular participation in the democratic process of a country. They are also the main tool to select individuals for various government and legislative offices. Besides this, as an opposition, they also point out and criticize the defective policies and inappropriate actions of the government.

Political parties are generally supposed to adhere to a set of legal principles while performing their essential political functions. In democratic societies, an efficient legal regime is always required to effectively regulate the political parties. This legal regime determines the conduct and general functioning of the political parties. It also defines and explains the legal parameters within which a political party should operate. The right of an individual to form, join and operate a political party has been recognized and protected internationally. A Political party is required to formulate rules for its internal management. It is also supposed to evolve a transparent and efficient mechanism for the selection of its various party leaders, electoral candidates, and other office bearers.

There exists an extensive legal framework to regulate the political parties in Pakistan. Under Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan, every citizen, subject to certain reasonable legal restrictions, have the right to form and be a member of a political party. It further provides, “every political party shall account for the source of its funding in accordance with the law”. The Political Parties Order 2002, deals with various aspects of the administrative functions of political parties. Its section 4 requires every political party to formulate its constitution explaining its aims and objectives, organizational structure, criteria of membership, qualifications and tenure of party leaders and other office-bearer, receipt and collections of party funds, procedure for election of party leaders and office-bearer, selection or nomination of party candidates for general elections, intra-party dispute resolution including the suspension or expulsion of members, method for amendment in the constitution etc. Similarly, every political party is also required to provide the copy of its constitution to the Election Commission.

Section 5 of Political Parties Order, 2002 also provides that a person who is disqualified from being a Member of Parliament under Article 63 of the Constitution is simply ineligible to form or be member of a political party, or be elected as an office-bearer of a party. Further, Section 11 requires every political party to hold intra-party election periodically in a transparent and democratic manner through secret ballot, in accordance with party’s constitution. Similarly under this law, a political party is also bound to submit to the Election Commission a consolidated statement of party’s accounts audited by a Chartered Accountant every year. Under Representation of People Act, 1976, the ECP, as a regulatory body, also exercises considerable control over the affairs of political parties and their electoral candidates during the elections.

As matter of fact, the prevailing political culture is necessarily incompatible with the legal framework to regulate the political parties in the country. No political party bothers to abide by these rules and regulations. In the absence of established legal norms, these political parties are being run in an authoritarian and arbitrary fashion. The cults of personality have overshadowed the political ideologies of these parties. Political parties have somehow become the ‘family limited companies’, with controlling interest retained by different political dynasties. There are ‘lifetime’ unelected and unopposed leaders who are now actively leading the political parties in the country. Surely, this practice is simply unprecedented in the civilized democratic world.

PML-N, the ruling political party is best-known for retaining its political authority within a particular single political family. It has offered key party and government positions to the members and close relatives of this family. Similarly PPP, the so-called second largest political force in the country, is also essentially a hereditary political party revolving around the Bhutto dynasty. After the death of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, the ‘right to rule’ was devolved upon the Bilawal Bhutto, who is now a lifetime chairman of this political party. Comprising certain hand-picked members, the primary affairs of these political parties are being managed through so-called ad-hoc core committees. There have never been conducted any transparent intra-party elections by these political parties.

The nationalist political parties like MQM and ANP have also no identity independent of their party heads. MQM chief Altaf Hussain, despite being a dual national, is leading the party from a foreign country for a long time in sheer violation of the law of the land. The religious political parties in the country have also become the personal organizations comprising the followers of certain clerics cum politicians.

Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is the only political party which elects its Ameer through a democratic and transparent manner. However, its political credentials are often doubted on account of its fundamental political ideology and extending political support to the military dictators.

Like the so-called forces of political status quo, the ‘proponents of change’ have also been tarred with same brush when it comes to intra-party politics. It is generally believed that Imran Khan’s cult of personality has obscured the political ideology of PTI. Beside this, real politik and political pragmatism have taken the place of political idealism. PTI’s ex-president Javed Hashmi has been complaining for being expelled from the party illegally and irregularly. Similarly, the Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed commission was also disbanded as soon as it pointed out the irregularities committed during PTI’s intra-party polls. There is also a growing perception that IK’s close friends and associates are making crucial political decisions in the party.

In developed countries like the US and UK, political parties have significantly strengthened the democratic institutions by evolving a healthy political culture. In these countries, a competent and loyal party activist can contest intra-party elections for any party position. Similarly, an ordinary individual can also become the head of the state or government by the party support. Even in a third-world country like India, a ‘tea boy’ can rise to the position of Prime Minster of the country through his political struggle. Regrettably, the political situation in Pakistan is quite otherwise. In order to avoid a possible conflict of interest, the political party offices are always kept separate from the elected public offices in civilized countries. However in Pakistan, the legal provision prohibiting a party office-holder to simultaneously hold an elected public office has deliberately been scraped some years ago.

The ECP should actively play its role to effectively regulate the political parties in Pakistan. Without promoting internal democracy in the political parties, the democratic political institutions cannot be strengthened in the country. In fact, the undemocratic attitude of ‘democrats’ is posing a greater threat to democracy than do the so-called non-democratic forces. Therefore, Instead of striving for extensive electoral reforms in the country, the political parties should first voluntarily observe the internationally recognized principles for running a political party democratically.