NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 36

Declining relevance of ethno-linguistic political parties in Pakistan

Over the past decade, ethno-linguistic political groups in Pakistan, particularly in regions such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Sindh, have faced significant setbacks, resulting in their increasing marginalization. These parties, historically known for advocating identity and ideological politics, have played crucial roles in shaping Pakistan’s political landscape. However, due to various reasons, their influence has been waning, and their alignment with mainstream parties has raised questions about their commitment to their constituencies.

In the last election, ethno-linguistic political groups suffered a humiliating defeat, further solidifying the trend of the past decade in which such regional groups, particularly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Sindh, and to some extent in Balochistan provinces, have been politically marginalized. There are several reasons for the increasing irrelevance of these ethno-linguistic parties, with significant implications for Pakistan’s political culture.

Amid the uncertain and ever-changing political landscape in Pakistan, the ethno-linguistic political groups, also known as provincial parties, are facing formidable challenges. Historically, these groups have played a crucial role in the country’s politics, advocating for identity and ideology-based agendas. While they may not have been able to lead large political movements against dictatorships or sitting governments or win sweeping victories in their respective provinces, they have served as significant catalysts in political movements. One prominent example is the National Awami Party (NAP), formed in 1957. This coalition of ethno-linguistic groups from smaller provinces, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Sindh, and some Punjabi politicians, resisted the move to make West Pakistan (today’s territorial Pakistan) a single unit province. Although the NAP couldn’t achieve its objective, it played a crucial role in shaping the political landscape of the 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately, the One Unit policy was dissolved after the dismemberment of Pakistan, leading to the separation of East Pakistan in 1971.

Since the 1970s, ethno-linguistic groups such as the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Balochistan National Party (BNP), Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM, later renamed as Muttahida Qaumi Movement), Awami National Party (ANP), Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), Jeay Sindh Mahaz (JSM of Syed), Awami Tehreek led by Rasool Bux Palijo, Sindh United Party, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, and Sindh National Front (SNF) have splintered into various factions after the dissolution of NAP. Over the years, some of these groups have aligned with mainstream parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N) to gain power at the central and provincial levels. However, it is essential to note that by joining forces with these parties, the ethno-linguistic groups have often neglected the interests and ideologies of their constituents. Instead, they have used their positions to amass personal wealth and benefits through corrupt or illegitimate means due to their inability to sustain their political organizations financially. The lack of a strong organizational base to raise funds from their respective constituencies compelled them to seek power-sharing with major parties.

Most of the ethno-linguistic parties in Pakistan have historically followed Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideologies, and during the Soviet Union’s heyday, they received generous funding from the latter. Extensive research supports this claim. For example, the Awami National Party (ANP), despite being in power thrice in the late 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, couldn’t effectively address the issue of Taliban terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Instead, the party focused on establishing universities to benefit the families of its leaders while projecting these actions as efforts to promote education to outsiders. Instances like the tragic lynching of Mashal Khan at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan highlight the party’s failure to improve the lives of the people it represented.

In Sindh, aside from the Awami Tehreek of Ayaz Palijo, other Sindhi ethno-linguistic parties have lost relevance. The PPP, once a prominent national party, has now adopted a more Sindhi nationalist approach, leading to its inability to win significant parliamentary seats outside of Sindh in the 2013 and 2018 national elections.

In Balochistan, the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) is genuinely working for the rights of the Baloch people. However, it couldn’t secure a substantial number of seats in the last elections, raising doubts about the credibility of the election results in the province. Other ethno-linguistic parties like the National Party (NP) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party have also engaged in political deals to gain influence and power.

Currently, many ethno-linguistic groups, including PkMAP, ANP, MQM, and NP, are aligning themselves with the PML-N and the PPP in pursuit of a share in power. This shift comes as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a genuinely Pakistani nationalist party, has gained momentum and support in traditional ethno-linguistic strongholds such as KP, Punjab, and Karachi, posing a genuine threat to the parochial politics that have yielded little for the people of smaller provinces. As a result, the relevance of ethno-linguistic parties in Pakistan is on the decline, affecting their political constituencies.

The once influential ethno-linguistic political parties in Pakistan are experiencing a decline in relevance and political influence. Their inability to sustain themselves financially, reliance on aligning with major parties for power-sharing, and neglect of their constituents’ interests have contributed to their marginalization. With the rise of Pakistani nationalist parties like the PTI, the dominance of the PPP in Sindh, and the BNP-M in Balochistan, the ethno-linguistic parties are facing genuine threats to their parochial politics. As they continue to lose ground, the political landscape in Pakistan is witnessing a shift towards broader, nationalistic ideologies, which may have lasting implications for the country’s political culture.