With the announcement of results of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) intra-party elections this week, the three major political parties in the Parliament — including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party — have completed the mandatory requirement of holding internal elections ahead of next year’s general election. Yet, the manner in which these elections have been conducted shows that none of the mainstream parties seem to have institutionalised democratic norms and practices within their organisations.
Consider this scenario: the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) issues a directive in September 2016, warning that parties — including most parties represented in the Parliament –— failing to hold intra-party polls will not be allowed to contest by-polls on their respective electoral symbols. Following this, PML-N and PPP factions (Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan People’s Party-Parliamentarians) hold intra-party polls in October 2016 and January 2017, respectively. After the PTI fails to hold party polls by March 2017, when the exercise becomes overdue according to its own constitution as well as ECP rules, the latter issues a directive barring the party from contesting by-polls on its election symbol of the bat. The PTI obtains a stay order from the Lahore High Court and starts preparations for intra-party polls eventually held this week. The election in which just around a tenth of the party’s membership (2.7 million) cast ballots is won by Imran Khan-led Insaf panel. But importantly, the polls are held not in accordance with the elaborate criteria laid out in the party’s constitution. Instead, it followed just the bare minimum criteria set by the ECP, because the entire exercise was done in a hurry following ECP’s punitive action, says the chief election commissioner appointed for these polls by the party.
The ECP rules require parties to hold elections every four years but the PML-N had held its previous two party elections in 2011 and 2006, and PPP in 2013 — following a warning issued by the ECP ahead of 2013 general elections — and 2006.
The PTI’s previous elections were marred with controversy surrounding allegations of rigging which were upheld by a two-member inquiry commission headed by former Supreme Court justice Wajihuddin Ahmed. Instead of taking the commission’s findings seriously, the party chairman, Imran Khan, proceeded by dissolving the commission. Coincidently, some of the major names mentioned by the commission as having influenced the intra-party election outcome in 2013 have been elected to key leadership positions in the party this week.
Political parties and their approach towards intra-party elections suggests that they have yet to start taking this most important mechanism for institutionalising democratic norms and practices in their set-ups seriously. They don’t elect leadership at all levels of their organisational hierarchy as a matter of principle but only because they are required to do so by the regulator.
Yet, the fact remains that Pakistan has seen the first ever civilian transfer of power. Since we are now preparing for a second such transition in 2018, it would seem that the institutionalisation of democratic norms and practices has entered its formative phase in the country. Political parties should not lose sight of this moment in Pakistan’s political history. They should strengthen democratic norms and practices within their organisations. *