You could argue that voters are spoilt for choice: the number of officially approved political parties has doubled during the last five years, jumping from 147 to 281. An indication of such spiralling growth can be seen in the fact that there are dozens of parties registered with the same prefix or suffix – the Pakistan Muslim League, for instance.
Similarly, following the success of the Aam Aadmi Party in India, at least five parties with the suffix or prefix ‘Aam Aadmi’ have sprung up in Pakistan. Due to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) lenient laws regulating the affairs of political parties, there was almost 100% growth in the number of parties in the country since 2008.
Recently, nearly a dozen more parties were added to the ranks of the existing 281 parties and a few more applications are being processed, which should increase the number in a few days. Among the registered parties, 90% are a ‘one man show’. Since there is no law to de-register a political party, registration is valid for many political parties that have virtually become defunct or who do not have a leader anymore. Former President Farooq Khan Leghari’s National Alliance and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) are examples of such groups.
Leghari, who died in October 2010, contested the 2002 elections on the platform of the National Alliance but later, the group merged with what was then the ‘king’s party’, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), created by former ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Under the umbrella of the MMA, various politico-religious parties contested the 2002 elections in an alliance that disintegrated before 2008 elections. However, under the existing laws, the alliance is still a valid registered entity with the ECP.
Some argue that it is easier to register a political party in Pakistan than to register your child in school.
There are no registration fees and all you need is an application, a copy of the party’s manifesto and constitution along with a list of office-bearers. An applicant can also give an undertaking that intra-party elections will be held soon.
The ECP doesn’t have a mechanism to verify documents submitted and nor does it pursue the verification process. As a result, many party manifestos or constitutions are reworded versions of another party’s. The list of office-bearers is only checked for names that another party’s lists may include.
Proposals for amendments
In its second five-year reforms plan for 2014-18, the ECP has proposed amendments to the Political Parties Act (PPA), 2002, which offers guidelines for matters related to political parties. The ECP has proposed that a fee be charged for the registration of a party for a limited period of time. If the party fails to get a specific number of votes in the elections or doesn’t hold a seat in the legislature, its registration may be cancelled.
The ECP also seeks to regulate intra-party elections. In order to meet ECP rules, parties often conduct cosmetic exercises or reshuffles in their hierarchies in order to submit a new list of office-bearers after so-called intra-party polls. In most of the parties, the leadership holds the key office for a lifetime.
There is also no procedure to ‘de-list’ a party. In an unprecedented move, Dr. A Q Khan had applied to de-list the Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz Pakistan (TTP) party, formed a few years ago. His application has been approved by the ECP recently.
Simplifying registration criteria
Before the PPA of 2002, introduced by the then-military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf, political parties were governed through the PPA of 1962, put in place by Gen Ayub Khan. Ayub’s PPA spells out tougher criteria to regulate political parties. However, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto approached the Supreme Court in 1988 challenging the tougher clauses. The court, in its verdict under Article 8 of the Constitution, annulled the regulating clauses, thereby simplifying the process of registration.
Under Article 17, parliament has powers to create regulatory mechanisms for political parties or unions. “Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality,” it states.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2014.