Political Parties in Pakistan: Role & Functions


A political party consists of a group of like-minded people who share a common goal, aims, and objectives and work together as a unit to, influence the general public, and contest elections to gain control over the government. In any democracy, political parties represent different sections of society and regions, and their core values play a major role in the political development of the country. Through the electoral process, the people choose which political party should run the government. Coalitions are formed by the political parties, in case no single party gains a simple majority

Political parties are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan; like most other institutions, political parties are the legacies of our colonial past. Although the Muslim League, which was the vanguard of the Pakistan Movement, was not the product of any direct British initiative like the Indian National Congress yet it could not have come into existence without the congenial environment provided by the British Indian government. Similar is the case with other political parties like Jammat e Islami and Jamiat e Ulema Hind which transformed itself into Jamiat e Ulema Pakistan.

Features of Political Parties in Pakistan

Since the establishment of the new state, a large number of political parties have been active in the political scene in Pakistan even during the military regimes. In a multi-ethnic country like Pakistan, they are generally formed based on definite social interests or regional issues to bargain with the centre for a better deal for which they interact with state institutions frequently. The main features of the institution of political parties in Pakistan are as follows

  1. Multi-party System: A large number of political parties dominate the political scene in Pakistan. As with any other democracy, political parties represent different sections of Pakistani society and regions, and their core values play a major role in the politics of Pakistan.
  2. The proliferation of RegionalParties: There is a wide range of socio-cultural and ethnic diversities in Pakistan. These diversities naturally, therefore, are expressed in the formation of regional parties to bargain with the centre for a better deal.
  3. Leader-centric Organisations: In a developed country, political parties are mature organizations as they have a bureaucratized system, democratic governance, mass structures, and universalistic agendas. However, in Pakistan, most parties have personalized leadership, dynastic structures, and an overwhelming focus on patronage. They are invariably organized around individual leaders. They owe their existence to the charisma of their leaders. Their ability to influence voters and capacity to find the organization enables a leader to form a party with his followers. A politician must also consider the men who control blocks of votes in local areas and an efficient state.
  4. Opposition for Opposition Sake: Once in opposition, the parties are not interested in the achievement of objectives under national interests; they are more interested in opposition for the opposition’s sake in no holds barred policy Sporadic, short-lived, and trivial issues are magnified through emotional blackmailing
  5. Disregard for Public Opinion: Public opinions are not formed through a structured process of dissemination of information through neutral media; rather four entrenched classes dominate the public opinion namely the urban middle classes, landed aristocracy, religious leaders, and armed forces. The media is not neutral
  6. Lack of Proper Organization: The party system in Pakistan is marked by a lack of proper organizational elections and democratic functioning. Hardly the parties have evolved reliable mechanisms and workable procedures for managing their affairs. The top leadership dominates the working of the parties and avoids internal elections to choose party managers. Virtually all of them are named by the top leadership. This practice while strengthening the influence of the party chief, weakens the party organization as a whole and affects the growth of internal democracy and leadership.
  7. Bandwagon Politicking: Leaving one’s party and joining another party for a specific interest is called political defection. Defections have very badly affected the political stability of the country. For a politician who wants to survive, when the leaders change, loyalties change too.

Role of political parties in Pakistan

Every institution in a country, state or non-state, is meant to assist the state in effectively responding to multifarious challenges being faced by the country. Thus, the role of any institution in the socioeconomic and political development of a country can be assessed only by its contributions to the realization of the objectives set in the national interest of the country. Consequently, to assess the role of the political parties in the socioeconomic and political development of Pakistan, we have to examine to what extent they have responded positively and actively in responding to the following seven challenges of Pakistan namely

1. State Building and Institutions Strengthening

2. Nation Building and Cultural Assimilation

3. Economic Growth with Social Justice

4. Democratic Development and People Empowerment

5. Internal Stability and Order

6. External Security and Defence

7. Improving Global Image and Status

We will discuss the role of political parties in meeting the above-mentioned challenges one by one.

  1. State Building and Institutions Strengthening

How far the political parties have contributed towards meeting the biggest challenge of state building and institutional strengthening facing Pakistan, is debatable. A political party namely the All-India Muslim League was the vanguard of the Pakistan Movement, demanding the creation of a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims after the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. As such we owe a lot to the institution of political parties for the creation of Pakistan.

Political parties, whether in power or opposition, have the most to gain or lose by strengthening the existing and creating, where necessary, new social, economic, and political institutions for efficient and effective policy-making, implementation, and service delivery to ensure good governance.

Pakistan, like most other post-colonial states, was fortunate to inherit some well-functioning institutions such as parliamentary democracy, armed forces, administrative machinery, the criminal justice system, local government institutions, etc. After independence, it also created some new institutions such as planning forums, development agencies, social justice, human development, etc. The creation of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) for the equitable distribution of river water among provinces is a remarkable contribution of the political party in power. Similarly, Pakistan owes a lot to the political party which gave it the 1973 constitution and various institutions formed under it, particularly the Council of Common Interests. Another institution worth mentioning is the Benazir Income Support Fund for providing social protection to economically vulnerable segments of society. All these are crowning successes of the political parties as all these were created during democratic regimes NFC

However, due to multiple reasons, there started a gradual decay of almost every institution which over a period, made some institutions dysfunctional, and some irrelevant. This is painfully reflected in survey after a survey conducted to assess the approval rating of various institutions in the country. This institutional decay can be seen in the deteriorating law/order, weakened writ of the state even in settled areas, increased terrorist activities, load shedding, water scarcity, delayed justice, illiteracy, abysmal human development record, and poverty level. The list goes on.

There may be several reasons for the above-mentioned institutional dysfunctionality i.e., a capacity deficit of the political elite, frequent and prolonged military intervention, politicization, nepotism, etc. However, we cannot absolve the political parties of the blame for this gradual institutional decay. Whatever may the reason, the fact is that there is a grave crisis of confidence among the masses about the efficacy of some of these institutions. Of course, Pakistan’s emerging vibrant civil society, relatively open media, and the rise of an independent higher judiciary provide some glimmers of hope, but poor economic and development indicators coupled with worrying demographic trends pose serious challenges to the well-being of millions of Pakistanis.

2. Nation Building and Cultural Assimilation:

The second challenge Pakistan has been confronting since its very inception relates to its nation-building efforts. Specifically, it means how to transform a multitude of culturally distinct nationalities, each rightly proud of its respective rich cultural heritage, into a nation with a vision of common destiny that is at peace within and peace without. It aims at the unification of the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run.

When Pakistan came into existence as an independent nation-state 70 years ago, it inherited more than 12 major distinct nationalities that opted for Pakistan as their country. They did so for two reasons-leading their life by the principles of Islam and ensuring a better quality of life for their citizens. They were the Pakistani nation for emotional reasons and as an identity marker to distinguish themselves as different from Indians. The biggest challenge facing founding fathers and their successors have been to convert this emotional legitimacy of theirs into an institutional legitimacy whereby the citizens love their country for the benefits it confers on them as its citizen.

There are several drivers of nation-building in a country such as shared history, geographical continuity with efficient connectivity, common lingua franca, cultural affinity, economic integration, the existence of a well-functioning state with widely respected national institutions such as parliamentary democracy, armed forces, bureaucracy, etc. Although the above drivers are extremely helpful in defining a historical nation-state such as China, Japan, Iran, Egypt, etc, redefining the populace of a post-colonial multi-ethnic nation-state such as Pakistan as a viable and coherent national entity, the state must play larger than life role. Specifically, it must deliberately and consciously take effective measures to gel different ethnic groups into a nation. In this respect role of the political parties, even those formed on a regional basis or for religious purposes, cannot be over-emphasized

No doubt Pakistan has made considerable progress in this respect and our fourth generation is extremely passionate about being Pakistani but there is still a lot to be done to strengthen this process. There are areas where the insurgency is going on for several decades, while in certain regions people openly express their dissatisfaction with the way they are treated. Provincial grievances against the centre which is heavily dominated by the biggest province are common, one of the reasons we lost one-half of the country.

3. Economic Growth with Social Justice:

How to accelerate the rate of growth of its economy with all attendant technological and socioeconomic structural changes which are not only more than its population growth rate but also sufficient enough to raise the standard of living of its citizens, across the board and are sustainable over a long period.

Starting literally from a scratch, Pakistan has made tremendous economic progress during 7 decades of its existence as a nation-state and is now the 45th largest economy in terms of exchange rate parity and 26thy largest in terms of purchasing power parity. If we account for the informal economy which is almost equal to the formal economy, Pakistan’s ranking is even more comfortable. That’s why abnormal profits are being enjoyed by the commercial classes; Pakistani citizens on average are enjoying the fruits of growth and enriching the merchants and the industrialists

However, past performance aside, the current rate of its economic growth is not only inconsistent and inadequate to meet the growing needs of an increasing population resulting in deteriorating quality of life but there are widespread class, regional and provincial disparities in level and rate of growth. Not only its productivity is significantly lower than other countries, but there are also significant sectoral gaps due to inadequate technologicalpenetration in agriculture.

Consequently, its competitiveness position is at the bottom of the rung creating problems for increasing its exports. Infrastructural inadequacy and its maintenance backlog are further hindering the exploitation of its resource potential. The same is the case concerning human development-It ranks very low in the global human development index.

4. Democratic Development and People Empowerment:

How to increase the participation of people in policy making and implementation at all levels of governance by improving the democratic structures, processes, and political culture.

It is one of the ironies of fate that Pakistan which owes its creation to a peaceful democratic struggle, had to live half of its post-independence existence under military regimes. Because of these repeated direct or indirect authoritarian interventions, its democratic development has suffered a lot. After the abdication of armed forces from active political governance, an over-active judiciary has encroached on parliamentary prerogatives.

While the people of Pakistan have expressed time and again their overwhelming preference for parliamentary democracy and federal structure of the state, there are three areas namely political structures, processes, and culture which are posing challenges

a. Political Structures: Pakistan inherited a fairly well-functioning political structure like the offices of the governor-general, parliament, election commission, provincial legislatures, etc. Over a period, they would have evolved into well-oiled political machinery but due to the inadequate experience of the people and the elite, they started degenerating and fell into disrepute and paved the way for the non-democratic forces to fill the vacuum thus created by the dysfunctionality of the system. After many errors and trials, we are back on track but the structure which has gone weak during this tribulation needs to be strengthened if we want to see Pakistan as a functional democracy

b. Political Processes: Some major weakness of the political system is the flaws in the political process like voter registration, constituency delimitations, holding of fair and free elections, political succession, etc., which create crises of legitimacy for those elected with due process of electoral laws and regulations. That is why we see outbursts of violence soon after the holding of elections and charges of rigging. Although they are getting stronger it will take time to mature them. Leaving one’s party and joining another party for a specific interest is called political defection. Defections have very badly affected the political stability of the country. For a politician who wants to survive, when the leaders change, loyalties change too.

c. Political Culture: Perhaps the biggest weakness of our political system is the weak political culture of the society in general and of the political elite in particular. A mature political culture demands acceptance of dissent, tolerance of others’ views, acceptance of political results, etc. However, in Pakistan this intolerance is evident at every level of our social and political interaction starting from family to schools to business and politics All the above shortcomings are having a heavy toll on us in the form of political instability, violence, institutional overstepping, marginalization of minorities and other segments of society, bad governance, women status, etc.

5. Internal Stability/Law & Order:

Although the next three challenges are the offshoots of the above four challenges yet are discussed separately for their importance. The first of these three relates to maintaining internal stability- how to strengthen its law enforcement structures and criminal justice system to bring to justice those who disturb law and order as per the dictates of a modern civilized nation state

A cursory reading of reported figures relating to crime such as rape, murder, honour killing, kidnapping for ransom/revenge, targeted killing, violent street protests, daylight robberies, gang wars-land and drug mafias, sectarian/ethnic killings, and acid throwing is enough to gauge the enormity of the challenge. Cases not reported or not entertained is a different ball game. There is something seriously wrong with our investigation and criminal prosecution which is not creating an effective deterrence

The Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) Lahore Crime Survey shows that “in 2016 one in eight citizens of Lahore were victims of crimes like theft, robbery, burglary, extortion, assault, kidnapping and attempts at these crimes. This is a trebling of the crime rate in Lahore in 25 years! Long-term deterioration in public safety is not unique to Lahore; it is a challenge it shares with other big (one million-plus) cities. We find that the per capita crime rate in Punjab’s big-city districts (those with one million-plus city) was double the rate in other districts during the last quarter century.”

Besides the loss of life and property, an atmosphere of rampant crime erodes the confidence of the general public in the law enforcement capability of the state resulting in the emergence of vigilante groups to dispense on-the-street justice. It also distorts the image of the country and the resultant reluctance of foreign investors to invest in the country or do business.

6. External Security:

How to ensure its territorial integrity and maintain its sovereignty by strengthening its defence and deterrence capability by leveraging its limited resources which could be easily mobilized in case of war

Pakistan is at war on four fronts

· Permanent threat from India

· Intermittent threat from Afghanistan and now from Iran also

· Insurgency in Baluchistan

· Terrorism-home has grown with ethnic and sectarian overtones as well as foreign-sponsored

These four-front war efforts are not only a constant drain on our limited resources but have resulted in over-stretching of the defence forces adversely affecting their operational efficiency. Additionally, maintaining a large standing army in battle-ready conditions 24/7/365 has a debilitating effect on resource availability for another equally essential societal project of human development.

7. Identity, Status, and Image:

This is the challenge of creating the brand name of Pakistan-what it is, where it stands and what it stands for. In other words, how to create an image of the country as a responsible and respectable nation-state that is at peace within and at peace outside and enjoying a global status that is commensurate with its size and geostrategic position.

Unfortunately, even after 70 years, we are unable to create a respectable global image. Whether it is terrorism or extremism, financial scandals, or drug trafficking you will invariably come across Pakistan as the originator. As if it was not enough, honour killings, child labour, domestic violence, etc have further exacerbated the situation. This identification confusion is not only a conceptual issue but has policy implications, particularly in our foreign policy options.

The same is the case with our status-social, economic, political, and technological. Although we are the 45th largest economy in the world every global indicator puts us at the lowest rung. Whether it is the Human Development Index or the Global Corruption Index on the one hand or the Global Competitiveness Index or the Global Fragile States Index on the other, we are always bracketed with the least developed countries. It is a sad commentary on our governance and priorities set during the last 7 decades

Although there are multiple reasons for this less than satisfactory global image of Pakistan, we cannot absolve the political parties of their contributions in this respect. None of the leaders of the political parties has ever tried to improve this image


Over the last few years, Pakistan’s economy has expanded and so has the middle class. Parties that represent this group face another set of problems. They face double jeopardy. Their voter base is still not big enough to help them win. If they go after merit, they may face defeat. To prevent this, they adopt traditional politics to come at par with the other parties in the game. They struggle to defeat the traditional parties in their own game and risk losing their middle-class voters in the process.

Such parties and their middle-class supporters also struggle to grasp social complexities. Consequently, when they cannot link with the poor, they fail to deliver their promises and develop large coalitions. We as a nation must accept the reality that our political parties emerge from our society and reflect its realities. To overcome these weaknesses, there are no shortcuts other than a slow and gradual process of change in society. And this change is possible only if the democratic system continues to flourish and strengthen in the country.


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