Book Review: Pakistan's Political Parties And Their Use Of Violence

Book Review: Pakistan's Political Parties And Their Use Of Violence
Politics is a quest for power; and power is your ability to impose your will upon others. In a Hobbesian environment, power flows from the barrel of a gun; but in a democratic dispensation, a set of laws, rules, and norms is established to pursue political ends through peaceful means and attain power for a fixed term through the electoral process. A prerequisite for this peaceful transfer of power at regular intervals is, supposedly, a strong state; that is strong institutions - legislature, executive, and judiciary - working under the Constitution, without being interrupted.

Niloufer Siddiqui, Assistant Professor of Political Science, at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University of Albany State University of New York, in her new book “Under the Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan” (Cambridge University Press, 2023) provides an insightful analysis of the dynamics of violence as a political tool employed by almost every political party in Pakistan, in varying degrees and manners. The focus of the book is Pakistan, but it provides comparisons with scores of other countries, ranging from weak states with fragile democracies like Nigeria and Guatemala to strong states like the USA, with strong democratic traditions, where violence has been employed in pursuit of political ends. A Trump inspired violent mob attacked the Capitol and tried to stop Congress from formally declaring Joe Biden President- elect in January 2022. This was a watershed moment in US history, where a violent mob tried to reverse the result of the presidential election.

The survey of vast literature on politics, violence, and democracy, scientific analysis of firsthand data, surveys, and in-person interviews leads the author to conclude that ‘party violence is not a simple manifestation of weak state capacity, but instead the intentional product of political incentives.’ There exists a complex relationship between violence and democracy. The book seeks answers to the questions such as why political parties engage in or facilitate violence; when and why they refrain from it; why they engage in violence in one part (like ANP in Karachi) and avoid it in other parts (ANP in KP). The book also grapples with the puzzle of why some parties employ violence directly from within its own ranks (MQM), and why others employ violence as  “by-product of a vote-getting strategy” (PML-N and ASWJ); and some resort to violence ‘through the process of outsourcing’ it to ‘armed organization’ (PPP and PAC).

It is not just a “weak state” and “fragile democracy” that incentivize political violence. A political party’s ‘violence strategy depends on the incentives it faces in the subnational political landscapes in which it operates, the cost it incurs from doing so, and its capacity for violence.’ Engaging in violence or refraining from it, is weighed on the cost-benefit analysis by each political party. Cost-benefit is analyzed in terms of voters’ reaction, retaliation from the state, and financial gain or loss in the process.

Another determinant of violence strategy is related to the organizational strength or weakness of the party. Organizationally strong political parties like the MQM with a “captive support base” could afford to indulge in “direct party violence” with the help of party members, without fearing a loss of voters.

Where a party doesn’t have organizational structures to employ violence directly, “but has incentives to do so, they must rely on distinct militias, gangs, or armed organizations to implement their directives through the process of outsourcing,” as the PPP did with Peoples’ Amn Committee (PAC), an ethnic militia, in parts of Karachi. The party did not use the same strategy in other parts of Sindh province or anywhere else in the country.

An organizationally weak and structurally diffused political party like the PML-N can neither afford “direct violence” nor “outsource” it to an ethnic based armed group, for fear of negative reaction from the voter. Instead, they “form electoral alliance with such actors where and when it suits the party electorally. In Punjab the party has relied on landed elites to mobilize voters and provide patronage on their behalf. These individuals known as the ‘electables” virtually “own” the constituency. They control voters’ access to the thana-ketchehry complex, jobs, and irrigation water in connivance with local state officials. This coercive control ensures their electoral success. They join the party when its chances of victory at the hustings are bright, and then quit it when the party fortunes are down. PML-N has also made similar arrangements with a violent sectarian outfit like Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).

The Awami National Party (ANP) is historically and ideologically committed to non-violence. The party maintained its peaceful and non-violent image in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but engaged in tit-for-tat violence “in the Hobbesian political landscape of Karachi, where access to state resources and the informal economy were both up for grab and overlapped with ethnicity.” Here the party had a captive support base among the Pakhtun community who felt threatened by the MQM’s violent ethnic style of politics. The party is categorized as “organizationally strong” that can employ ‘direct violence’ as electoral strategy in Karachi, and desist from it in KP, depending on cost and benefit the party expects to incur in two different electoral fields. In Karachi, it was “less likely to incur a cost among its core co-ethnic voters for utilizing violence… By contrast in the heavily garrisoned and ethnically polarized environment of KP, the ANP was more likely to incur costs from both state institutions and voters… for any use of violence.” Terrorist outfits like TTP, the land mafia in Peshawar, and sectarian violence in parts of KP further complicate the electoral environment for a secular, non-sectarian, non-violent party like ANP.

The book makes a significant contribution in studying party violence along the full spectrum of political landscape within which a given political party operates. It attempts to study political parties from “within”, and “without.” It examines party organization, its decision making, its internal culture, socialization, and recruitment process. It offers “a new theoretical basis from which to study and analyze the various actors involved in electoral irregularities, and which contribute to violence in democratic and hybrid settings: a spectrum from gangs and ethnic militias, to landed elites, religious clerks, and militant groups.” The wholistic approach allows the author to study interaction between “parties, voters, violence specialists, and state actors”.

After presenting a detailed data-driven analysis, personal interviews, historical perspective, and firsthand field observation of party violence, the book devotes one full chapter to put party violence in a global perspective. Every chapter makes references to different countries to elaborate a point, but chapter seven takes up Nigeria, Philippines, and India, in significant detail.

The researcher conducted her field work during the years when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was slowly emerging on Pakistan’s political horizon. Therefore, the book uses only second-hand information in just two pages to describe the gradual rise of the party and its success in the 2018 elections. The 2014 dharna, ostensibly orchestrated by intelligence operatives against the PML-N government, that led to violent attacks on the Parliament, television headquarter, beating up of senior police officers, forced release of party workers from police custody, and calls for civil disobedience are not analyzed in the book. The May 9 violent attacks on military installations, the General Headquarters, and military symbols in response to the arrest of Imran Khan have added a new and unprecedented dimension to party violence in Pakistan. This calls for a detailed study in follow-up research.

The book provides a huge amount of data and refence material for any future research on the subject. It’s equally useful for students, researchers, academics, and casual observers of Pakistani politics.