“Democracy begins at home”— Intra-party elections in Pakistan



By Muhammad Faizan Ullah

LAHORE: Over the years intra-party elections in the mainstream political parties of Pakistan have proved merely a mock exercise with most of the parties under the control of either their founders or their legal heirs.

However, in order to justify ‘democratic traditions’ the second tier offices having only symbolic significance are held by the central leadership.

A detailed analysis of internal democracy in political parties of the country reveals that only Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)–a party known for taking hard line against liberalism–is so far the only political force where Shoora (Central Executive) stands stronger than  the Ameer (party head) and never, any son or daughter of the Ameer has succeeded him.

The mainstream parties including the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) don’t have such a strong democratic culture and history proves this fact.

According to noted political analyst and professor of political science at LUMS Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais the issue of dynastic politics isn’t only the issue of noted political parties but something that prevailed in almost every constituency, particularly in rural areas of the country.

Talking to Data Stories, Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais said the politicians field their children or relatives in order to ensure control of the constituency and strengthen their position in power corridors. “The situation in central Punjab seems different from rest of the province or other parts of the country where political parties seem dominant over individuals,” he adds.

Pakistan Peoples Party

Starting from PPP, a staunch advocate of democracy remains under criticism for promoting dynastic politics and where intra-party polls have proved a mere mock exercise. The party was founded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in November 1967. After his execution in April 1979, the PPP was led by Begum Nusrat Bhutto, his wife who served as party Chairperson and later, Benazir Bhutto (their daughter), after getting elected as Prime Minister for the first time in 1988 also replaced her on top party office which she held till her tragic death in 2007.

After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was nominated as the party Chairman and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, immediately started acting as the party Co-Chairman.

In all these phases mentioned, above, not a single time, the party elected its leadership through the intra-party polls and merely a symbolic exercise was done by the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) to nominate the new leader.

Although PPP leadership claims of holding intra-party polls after every five years, yet, it was in Musharraf era when intra-party elections were declared mandatory and PPP carried out its first noted exercise in 2002.

Benazir Bhutto, who, through a unanimous decision of CEC many years ago had already been elected as the lifetime Chairperson of PPP held her office but as her party wasn’t allowed registration due to her absence from the country and the legal bindings confronting her, a new PPP under the banner of PPP-Parliamentarians (PPPP) was formed which was eligible to contest polls. Makhdoom Amin Faheem, a nominee of Benazir Bhutto was elected as the President of PPPP unopposed and similarly Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, another nominee was made its Secretary General.

PPP later also held intra-party polls in 2007 in which Benazir Bhutto was once again declared as the Chairperson of the party whereas for the PPPP (which is registered in Election Commission of Pakistan and allowed to contest poll) Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf once again got elected unopposed on the slots of President and Secretary General. The centre of power, however, till the end of her life was Benazir Bhutto, later, her husband Asif and now her son Bilawal.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz

Since its foundation in 1993, PML-N has been led by Sharif brothers when they are in Pakistan. A general council of party comprising 1,600 members and having representation from all the four provinces have never witnessed any candidate filing nomination papers against the party Quaid (Nawaz Sharif). Between 1993 to October 1999, Nawaz Sharif was the President of PML-N.

During the period of exile between 2000 to 2008, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi served as the acting President of the party whereas the office of President was kept by Shahbaz. Nawaz couldn’t hold the office due to legal reasons till he was cleared by the court after he returned to Pakistan. Raja Zafar ul Haq, a party stalwart from Kahuta also held a symbolic office of Chairman for years.

After their return to Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was elected as the party President and Shahbaz, his brother as the President of Punjab with unanimous vote.

Even at the time while Sharifs were abroad and Javed Hashmi was serving as the acting President, centre of power in PML-N were none other than Nawaz and Shahbaz.

Now, after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court which has barred him from being the party President, his brother Shahbaz Sharif has been elected unopposed as President in March 2018.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) 

Since its foundation in 1995, PTI has been led by Imran Khan as its Chairman. Except Imran Khan there is no question of being anyone else in command–be it the Central Executive or its Core Committee comprising big wigs like Jehangir Tareen, Shah Mehmood Qureshi or former president of PTI Makhdoom Javed Hashmi.

Javed Hashmi had to pay a heavy price of differing from Imran Khan during the 2014 dharna ( sit in) when he expressed no confidence over the way PTI was dealing with sit-in and allegedly playing in the hands of anti-democratic forces. Imran Khan publicly announced disassociation with him. There was no consultation from the Core Committee or the Central Executive of the party over terminating a person from the slot of President.

 Muttahida Qaumi Movement

MQM, which was founded in 1986 as Mohajir Qaumi Movement and later in 90s renamed as Muttahida Qaumi Movement was single handedly controlled by Altaf Hussain. He was declared as Quaid e Tehreek and continued to lead the party till August 2017 when a new group led by his former party stalwart, former Mayor of Karachi Dr Farooq Sattar emerged.

Although MQM has a written party constitution, and a very organized structure comprising Unit, Zone and Sector, yet nobody ever challenged Altaf Hussain’s position within party. A faction within MQM emerged as MQM-Haqeeqi which is still single handedly controlled by Afaq Ahmed, once a close confidant of Altaf.

Very recently, MQM-Pakistan also faced split in its rank when two groups, one led by Dr Farooq Sattar and other by Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui announced their claims on leadership. As per the MQM constitution, the Rabta Committee (consultative body) expressed no confidence over Farooq Sattar over his decisions regarding Senate tickets and the disgruntled Farooq had to form a new faction, whose elections were held and he was elected as the party head.

Awami National Party 

To an extent, Awami National Party (ANP) showed democratic trend in its cadres while it was led by Dr Sher Baz Mizari in 70s and later it was Khan Abdul Wali Khan who assumed the office of President with the consent of party’s Central Executive. After he resigned as the party head, for almost a next decade the party was run by Ajmal Khattak. In 1999, it was finally Asfandyar Wali who took over. In between, there has also been tussle for the leadership when Begum Nasim Wali Khan, the second wife of Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Asfandyar Wali indulged in a tug of war for party command.


Jamaat-e-Islami seems the only party which has practically implemented democracy in its cadres. After the death of its founder Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, it wasn’t his son, but a party worker Mian Tufail who led the JI till 1987.

After Mian Tufail, no one from his family was chosen as the party Ameer and it was Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a party member from NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) who assumed the command of Jamaat-e-Islami and got elected for three terms as Ameer till 2009.

After his death, neither is sons, nor anyone else from his family held the reigns of party but it was Syed Munawar Hassan who was elected as the party Ameer till 2014. After Syed Munawar Hassan, none of his children or anyone from his family was nominated for the slot of Ameer but the party command was given in the hands of Siraj ul Haq, through proper election process. He has been serving as the Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami since 2014.

What the political leaders say

Talking to Data Stories, elected parliamentarians from the mainstream parties defend the position of their respective leaderships and held consensus that as long as popular vote stands with  the leaders, they have complete democratic right to lead.

The elected parliamentarians who talked to Data Stories.

PPP MPA from Punjab Faiza Malik said it was PPP which gave honour to its poor workers while accommodating them in Senate and fielding them for National and Provincial Assemblies. She said the perception that democracies didn’t exist within PPP wasn’t true because there was a complete pattern of party polls which start from primary level, and while passing through district and provincial levels, it leads to its main Central Executive. She said once entire party stood united under the leadership of one figure who enjoyed complete mandate of his stalwarts, it was out of question to think that PPP wasn’t exercising democracy in its cadres.

“How can you bar a doctor’s son from becoming a doctor or a politician’s son from becoming a politician? I don’t call it a dynastic politics, its in fact the result of a popular vote which brings leaders into power again and again,” said Chaudhry Sher Ali Khan, a PML-N MPA from Attock.

Sher Ali Khan, who is Provincial Minister for Mines and Minerals, who is also a maternal grandson of Amir Mohammad Khan (Nawab of Kalabagh), said intra party polls were significant for parties as they enabled a worker to flourish. However, he said as far as top leadership of the party was concerned, there was no binding on anyone to contest against the top brass in intra-party polls but being the most popular figure of the party itself, people don’t field themselves against the party head. He said in democracy, everyone had the right to excel and it wasn’t undemocratic, if parties were run by a leader who enjoyed complete support within and outside the party.

PTI’s MPA Mian Mehmood ul Rasheed, who is Opposition leader in Punjab Assembly, said PTI was the only political party which practically held intra-party polls and all key party offices were filled through poll process. To a question, he said the party Chairman Imran Khan had never barred any party figure to file nominations against him but entire party was unanimous to see him as the Chairman.

Zahid Khan, Secretary General of Awami National Party said ANP had not voiced for democracy but practically exhibited it in its ranks. He said he himself was elected as the Secretary Information of the party 5 years ago and along with him, the entire central cadre came into existence through a transparent poll process.

Parliamentary leader of Jamaat-e-Islami in Punjab Assembly Dr Syed Waseem Akhter claimed that no other party in Pakistan had such a transparent system of electing a leadership which JI had.

He said from bottom to top, all offices were filled through election and the JI Shoora (Central Executive) which comprises of 70 members from all over Pakistan takes the decision which the Ameer has to accept.

The way forward  

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais says major chunk of Pakistani population is either middle class or poor and it remains unable to find representation in Parliament as per their volume. The elected representatives, mostly from Sindh and Balochistan or Southern parts of Punjab, are from feudal or affluent background who treat their voters as subject. Resultantly, the actual voice of Pakistani population isn’t heard in the parliament where dynasties occupy the control, while representing different political parties.

“In order to ensure proper representation of people’s voice, the representatives from middle or lower class need to be in parliament,” says Dr Rais.

However, former caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan, Sardar Mir Balakh Sher Mazari believes dynastic politics may not necessarily has a negative impact on society.

Talking to Data Stories, the veteran politician said, “It depends upon the fact where it exists. In some areas dynastic politics has proved beneficial for people and similarly in some areas it has been rejected by the people as per their wish.”

“Neither has it proven wrong everywhere nor right everywhere, fact of the matter is that where it has been accepted or rejected,” added Sardar Balakh Sher Mazari.