Book Review | Under The Gun: Elections, Political Violence and Democracy

Dr. Niloufer Siddiqui's Under The Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan (2023) is a well-researched volume that draws attention to how political parties can manage ethnic, cultural, social and economic conflicts without resorting to violence.

Book Review | Under The Gun: Elections, Political Violence and Democracy

In post-1971 Pakistan, the emergence of a civilian led government and the making of the 1973 Constitution on a broad-based national consensus among the major political parties was considered a harbinger for democracy. However, the ethnic unease simmering in the smaller provinces continued to fester. Though they were small in number, religious groups were vociferous as they campaigned for a country built on an ‘Islamic ideology.’ Despite these tenuous circumstances, the expectation was Pakistan may embark on building democracy and sustaining the party system. 

Sadly, that expectation did not materialize. In the eyes of many scholars and commentators, it had not been allowed to function and finally collapsed in 1977. Leaving that debate aside, the painful reality is that academic interest in the study of political parties has remained low, perhaps unable to catch the imagination of researchers. Fast forward to 2008, and the restoration and revival of democracy, elections and the formation civilian led governments energized faith in political parties. 

Now, in 2024, Pakistan will be holding the fourth consecutive general elections on 8th February. This means that the citizens will witness the longest spell of an uninterrupted party led civilian rule- from 2008 to 2024. In the eyes of many observers, it remains, illiberal, hybrid, establishmentarian, corrupt, military hegemonic and merely a cosmetic democratic process legitimized by a dubious election system.  Despite these limitations and earned monikers, it has spiked the interest of scholars and policy makers in seeking to understand the dynamics of party politics and the organizational structures of political parties.

Dr. Niloufer Siddiqui is a Pakistani-American scholar who has chosen the path of providing some provocative research and insights on this subject. Her book Under the Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan (Cambridge University Press, 2023) is an excellent study: she is upfront in pointing out that there is substantial literature on political violence and most of it focuses on the military, terrorist groups, non- state actors and the sectarian groups. However, violence in political parties or instigated by the political parties as organized entities has not received adequate attention.

I find the book is timely and believe that it may catch the attention of the leaders of political parties as well as scholars and students of public policy and social sciences. The book has three distinct features: first, it is theoretically rigorous, refreshing and enriching, second, it is methodologically innovative, empirically grounded and rich in data, and covers a wide-ranging spectrum of forms of violence, electoral politics and political parties from South Asia to Africa and Latin America. Siddiqui aptly claims that her research strategy is ‘deliberately multi-method’, relying on over 150 semi-structured interviews from civil society, party leaders and members to potential voters, journalist and public officials, spanning over a period of ten years of research. She provides meticulous details of data sources and dwells on challenges of synchronizing qualitative dimensions of research with quantitative and experimental that the researchers, scholars, students, journalists and government functionaries may find instructive. Third, although focusing on Pakistan’s political parties the study draws relevant and varied insights from the incidences of violence woven into the fabric of political parties and the processes of electoral contestation and democracy, from a wide range of societies and states.

The primary argument of the book revolves around weaving an intricate relationship among political parties, voters, violence specialists and the state actors. Political parties are pivotal for enabling a political environment that constructs, sustains and consolidates a democratic polity. Thus, center staging the political parties and electoral process as the foundational pillars of democracy, Dr. Siddiqui examines how political parties achieve their goals. What kind of strategies political parties adopt to win elections and under what conditions violence is deployed by political parties, or ‘violence specialists’ are co-opted to woo the voters to acquire and sustain power, not simply win elections. She builds her theoretical premise on three pillars: first, that the political party is a rational actor (parties weigh costs and benefits of indulging in violence), that the organizational structure of the parties, weather it is strong or weak, plays an important role in choosing violence as tool for voter mobilization and de-mobilization and thirdly, that the local support base or alliances are equally important for determining the choice to deploy violence. It is the combination of these three factors that she builds her theory and through evidence shows how it is manifested in Pakistan’s politics.

Dr. Siddiqui lists and analyzes seven factors that the political parties weigh before they exercise using violence, coercion for direct electoral benefit, clientelist exchange, economic gain, polarization, local & reputational costs, non-voter costs. Each factor is analyzed in depth and carefully catalogued with evidence.

The book has nine chapters, including the conclusion. Chapter one traces the puzzles and paradoxes between violence and democracy. Chapter two theorizes the logic of party violence, which I have found stimulating and spells out the components of her theoretical premise and chapter three assiduously details the challenges of Pakistani state’s capacity and its complex and intricate relationship in abetting and dealing with violence. The chapter also provides insights on the intricacies of state structures & offices and how these influence the level and degree of violence within and among the political parties. Chapters four to seven provide evidence driven practices, manipulations, rivalries, contestations on how the major political parties of Pakistan, MQM, PPP, PML-N, ANP instrumentalize violence. Throughout the discourse in these chapters Karachi looms large for showcasing various facets of violence from ethnic to social, economic, cultural, political and religious.  It draws attention to tangling issues of urban governance.  The author draws special attention that ANP, which had roots in Khan Ghaffar Khan’s philosophy of non-violence also resorts to violence in Karachi, symbolizing Lyari as the battle ground for ethnic violence.

In that realm, another outstanding feature of her research is putting the ethnic politics in the context of local actors, their fears and demands and weaving linkages with the local communities in conjunction with the aspirations and strategies of the provincial and national leadership of the political parties. She meticulously elaborates and analyses how in the ‘ethnically polarized and Hobbesian city of Karachi’, MQM, ANP and PPP have been able to benefit from the coercive and economic power of violence and yet have been able to retain the support base of their co-ethnics. In chapter 8, she brings to attention the emergence of PTI and puts violence in comparative perspective, not only with reference to Pakistan’s ethnic mosaic but also in comparison with Nigeria, the Philippines and that livens up the theoretical resilience of her work. Her deeper concern is unearthing and identifying the conditions under which political parties indulge in violence. 

Dr. Siddiqi has perceptively observed: ‘‘Political parties in Pakistan utilize violence against a fairly violent backdrop… unlike other developing democracies, Pakistan’s politics are constantly changing. When I began research on this topic, the stakes of the game in Karachi, in particular, were high, with violent incidents happening on an almost daily basis. Since that time, the main actors in Karachi have changed and existing actors have modified their strategies,” (pp 18). This is the crux of what I may call ‘researcher’s dilemma’ - for those of us who study or watch the unpredictably changing dynamics of Pakistan’s political landscape in shock and awe!

She contests existing literature on political parties, some of which treats violence as part of electoral strategy, clientelism or vote buying. She incisively remarks that, ‘violence does not in itself directly aid political parties in winning them votes,’ (pp 219). On occasions, political parties could reach out and form alliances with the militant or sectarian groups—a strategy not only to win elections but to intimidate and expand support base (PML-N with ASSP). The study provides ample evidence to claim that ‘party violence is much more than electoral violence’.

Here are a few take aways from Under the Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan.

First, the study cautions that the usage and instrumentalization of violence by political parties undermines the credibility, legitimacy of electoral processes and aspirations and values of democracy.  Therefore, political parties must devise policies to curb violence in all forms. Instead, they must encourage politics of civility and resolution of differences through dialogue and negotiations.  Second, by center staging political violence, the study also draws attention to devising policies for managing ethnic, cultural, social and economic conflicts in urban centers by relying on local leadership, empowering city administration and enhancing community participation and empowerment. This implies the resurrection of local governments through mutual consent and consensus among the political parties. Third, it is imperative for political parties to democratize their leadership selection and organizational structures. Fourth, the voter has power and votes must be cast thoughtfully and judiciously. Fifth, political parties must develop policy mechanisms to preserve the sanctity and integrity of individuals and institutions that conduct elections.

Scholars, students, journalists, policy makers and most importantly perhaps, campaign strategists for Pakistani political parties and their leadership, would find the book enlightening and a must-read, especially if they believe in sustaining and consolidating democracy in the country. 

Dr. Saeed Shafqat is Professor & Founding Director of the Centre for Public Policy & Governance (CPPG) at the Forman Christian College University in Lahore.