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Last Updated: 06/05/2013
The Failure of Secular Parties in Pakistan
Jahan Zeb

The Pakistan People Party (PPP) and the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) both sustained significant losses in last month's general elections. These results can be at least partly explained by the former coalition government's hasty devolution of federal powers to unprepared provincial authorities, as well as their hesitance to fully engage with civil society groups. Both parties should now focus on tranparent, democratic party reforms, and the clarification of a coherent secular policy agenda so as to become politically revelant again through the 2018 elections.

The former coalition government (2008-2013) of the Pakistan People Party (PPP) and the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) along with the former opposition of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif deserve appreciation for giving the government and assemblies the opportunity to complete its five year term. The governance was not easy though because of the roller-coaster relationship among the government, opposition, the powerful Army and the newly freed judiciary. The government and the opposition had assigned greater decision-making authority to the provincial governments. The Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment has devolved a number of key functions to the provinces. In total, functions in seventeen federal ministries have been devolved, including Agriculture, Education, Environment, and Health. In addition, a greater share of revenues has been passed to the provinces through the National Finance Commission Award in order to enable them to perform these functions.

The devolution process has posed institutional and capacity challenges at the provincial level, and meeting these challenges had and will require concerted efforts to enhance sub-national capacity and institutional development, which varies across provinces. The lack of such capacity was felt in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where the ANP was almost whipped out of the province in the May elections could be one of the reasons. The factors of militancy and power play by internal and external players will be addressed in a separate column.

Both the PPP and ANP need to identify and analyze the factors that led to their big election loss. They need to marry new-thinking or perestroika and glasnost in Gorbachev's words. They need to go thorough transparent organizational and structural reforms if they want to be relevant in the 2018 elections. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa case is an example where lessons can be drawn by the PPP and other parties that did not perform well.

The ANP leadership failed to engage and nurture independent experts from academia, businesses, professionals, youth, women, and the new emerging civil society. The youth who will vote in 2018 will not easily accept the third and fourth generation dynastic leadership as evident from the 2013 elections results. The ANP performed poor by not holding local government elections and thus did not devolve governance to grassroots level. On the internal party organizational and policy fronts, neither ANP energized the party with the Jazba of youth nor they bring comprehensive policies on governance, economy, foreign affairs, militancy to name a few. Today's youth is better aware of the issues and can better assess the national, regional and international social, political and economic trends and decide their own destiny. The needs of the changing demographics were either misunderstood or ignored. While the party leadership and cadre is loyal and disciplined but lacks the understanding of complexity of the intra and inter-state relationships in the post 9/11 and cold war developments.

The ANP needs to introduce transparent democratization process in the party to enable its workers and the people in believing that people can be the masters of their own destiny. The party needs to engage people of opinion across Pakistan to make review of the causes of its failure and take ownership and necessary action. The party does not need to be shy to identify and analyse the core issues, bring clear policies on governance, economy, foreign and domestic affairs, war on terror and militancy. They will be able to play a healthy opposition role by providing alternative policies and concrete strategies based on the true aspiration of the people and thus can become government in 2018 once again if played wisely.

Jahan Zeb is peace scholar with the University of Waterloo, Canada and can be reached at