New Faces

Since the 1980s, British democracy produced nine prime ministers, two of them – Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – elected for three consecutive terms each based on their popularity. All of them served their terms and left to make space for new blood and ideas. When out of office, none of them made scary threats about ‘revenge of democracy’ or ‘I’ll be back’.
In the same period, Pakistan had ten prime ministers, excluding the caretakers. Five of them were ‘repeat faces’ thanks to the rivalry between Nawaz Sharif (elected thrice) and Benazir Bhutto (twice). Unlike the consecutive terms of Thatcher and Blair, Sharif and Bhutto played musical chairs, one replacing the other, and wasted ten years in political squabbles, a wasted decade for us in Pakistan when the rest of the world focused on economic development with the end of the Cold War.
In twenty-eight years, since the 1985 general election, there has been little change in the faces in Pakistani politics. Faces change in political parties worldwide. Parties act as incubators of leadership. Britain’s Labour Party, one of the oldest parties in the world, elected Ed Miliband as its leader in 2010. He was just 43. He was chosen purely on merit.
The PML-N and the MQM have the same party heads since 1990. That’s 23 years. The PPP and the ANP are family affairs, where party chairmanship passes from parent to child. Again no change in faces since 1990 apart from the intra-family transitions.
There is little chance, if any, that the PML-N, the MQM, the PPP and the ANP will see any change in the party leaderships through internal election. Of course, many will be quick to say evolution is the beauty of democracy and things will change after several national elections in the country without interruption. However, there is little evidence to back this theory apart from empty optimism.
The rot inside these parties and the vested interests have become entrenched. Several of these parties now have secret militant wings to back their permanent party leaderships. Also, they now run their own private foreign policies, meeting foreign governments and setting agendas for Pakistan outside our borders. Apart from death, there is little chance of change in party leaderships regardless of the number of uninterrupted national elections in Pakistan in the future.
While the PPP, the PML-N, the MQM and the ANP failed to change the faces of party chairpersons since 1990, except for transitions within family, Britain’s Labour Party changed its party chairman seven times, with seven different politicians elected as party heads between 1990 and now.
Excuses that Pakistani democracy is in evolution or suffered setbacks are preposterous. Even more ridiculous is the argument of apologists who compare Pakistan to political parties in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This comparison stretches suitability and is irrelevant. Instead of giving excuses and protecting the rot in our political parties, our commentators should aggressively question this rot.
Today, Pakistanis are a vibrant, hardworking nation of achievers when given the chance. Young immigrant Pakistanis have risen to the top of the political systems in Britain and Norway under equal opportunity while the doors of Pakistani political parties are shut in their faces. They would probably be assassinated if they dared challenge some of the party leaders in Pakistan.
In interviews with the heads of our political parties, Pakistani journalists are too timid to pose this question to politicians who have had several stints as party chairmen: “When will you retire?’ or ‘When will we see a new face as your party head?’.
One party, the PTI, has dared to support new faces as candidates for the next federal and provincial assemblies. But it is a gamble in a failed political system where almost all the other parties are united despite their differences in scuttling this nascent experiment for change.
The return of tax cheats, bank loan defaulters, and liars under oath en masse to politics in this election after a weak scrutiny process is evidence that nothing will change unless we subject Pakistan to a long period of experimentation and upheaval in the hope that things will improve in the end, and even that is a big ‘if’.
If nothing works, Pakistan’s intellectuals, the public, the judiciary and the military, the real stakeholders in the country’s stability and prosperity, will have to think of out-of-the-box solutions to put the country and democracy on the right track.