Explainer: Pakistan’s main political parties

Learn about six of the most prominent parties contesting the country’s 2013 general elections.

ANP Profile

On May 11, Pakistanis will go to the polls to vote in general elections.

Read about the history, vote bank and ideology of six of Pakistan’s biggest parties:

Awami National Party (ANP)
Over 750 ANP activists and leaders have been killed by the Taliban, due to the party’s secular ideology [EPA]

Left-wing secular party drawing strength from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province will face tough challenge in 2013 polls.

The Awami National Party (ANP) is a left-wing, secular, Pashtun nationalist party, drawing its strength mainly from the Pashtun-majority areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. It is also active the urban areas of Sindh province and elsewhere.

The party was officially formed in 1986 as a conglomeration of several left-leaning parties, but had existed in some form as far back as 1965, when Khan Abdul Wali Khan split from the existing National Awami Party. Khan was following in the political footsteps of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan, popular known as the “Frontier Gandhi”), one of the most prominent nonviolent pro-independence figures under the British Raj. Today, the party is led by Asfandyar Wali Khan, Abdul Wali Khan’s son.

At the national level, the ANP has traditionally stood with the PPP, the only other major secular party operating across the country. 2008 was no different, and the ANP was one of the PPP’s most stalwart allies in the previous government, with its 13 seats in the National Assembly backing the coalition throughout its five-year term in office.

In the 2013 polls, however, the ANP will have to contend with high anti-incumbent sentiment in its stronghold of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as a result of a lack of economic development and a deteriorating security situation. The ANP itself has borne the brunt of political violence in the province, with more than 750 ANP workers, activists and leaders killed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the last several years, according to the party’s information secretary, Zahid Khan.

The political threat to the ANP takes the form of Jamaat-e-Ulema Islami-Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), two religious political parties that have historically offered an alternative to the ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The ANP will also be watchful for the appeal of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has polled well with ethnic Pashtuns.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)
MQM chief Altaf Hussain is respected with almost saint-like reverence by the party faithful [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Secular party dominates Karachi politics and is key coalition king-maker, but is dogged by accusations of violence.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is a secular, liberal but fiscally conservative party that draws its power base from the sprawling metropolis of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. The party held 25 seats in the outgoing parliament, and will once again be expecting a strong showing in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad – where it has traditionally held sway – resulting in a significant chunk of National Assembly seats and a commanding voice in the Sindh provincial assembly.

Initially founded in 1984 as the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, the party’s original mission was to safeguard the rights of ethnic Muhajirs, or Muslim migrants from India who moved to Pakistan after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The MQM, led by its enigmatic chief Altaf Hussain, aimed to ensure that these migrants were not sidelined from government jobs and other quotas in a city which they had come to dominate population-wise.

The party has had a tumultuous history, with its members being targeted by the state in police and military operations in the early 1990s, after they were charged with sedition and plotting the breakaway of Karachi and Hyderabad from Pakistan. MQM activists and leaders admitted in subsequent years that they had taken up arms to protect themselves against the state and rival factions, but have always denied that the MQM was involved in any conspiracy against the state.

In 1997, the party changed its name to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement) – a change that coincided with a period that saw it become a more accepted part of the mainstream of Pakistani politics. Today, the party serves as a vital key in any coalition government, with its control over Karachi, the country’s economic engine, and its significant chunk of National Assembly seats. It remains, however, dogged by accusations that it uses violence and fear to extract votes, and extorts business owners in Karachi.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)
PML-N’s strength lies in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and Sharif has been tipped to be the next PM [EPA]

Led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is the leading opposition party in the outgoing Pakistani parliament and is considered by many to be the frontrunner in the 2013 polls.

A centre-right, fiscally and socially conservative party, the PML-N draws its strength from Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. The party won 91 seats in the National Assembly in the last elections, and also led the provincial government in Punjab, with Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother, serving as chief minister. The Sharifs draw their wealth from running a number of industries – primarily steel mills – and much of their support comes from influential industrialists and agriculturalists in both rural and urban areas of Punjab. Like most other major political parties in Pakistan, it is heavily reliant on kinship and patronage networks for votes.

Nawaz, the elder Sharif, first rose to prominence under General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator from 1977-88, and in the following years, his party emerged as the primary opposition to Benazir Bhutto’s PPP. The two parties spent the 1990s trading places in government, with neither completing a full term, until Nawaz’s government was ousted in 1999 by then-army chief Pervez Musharraf, who appointed himself leader of the country.

Nawaz spent the next seven years in self-imposed exile, under an agreement with Musharraf’s government, returning in 2007 to lead his party’s campaign in the 2008 general election (even though he did not himself run for office that year). He regained political prominence by supporting the Lawyers Movement against Musharraf, and his party easily swept into power in Punjab and, with a strong showing in the province, also re-established itself in the National Assembly.

The party’s manifesto for the 2013 election focuses on spurring economic growth from its current level of around three percent to six percent, primarily by increasing investment levels and launching large-scale public infrastructure projects.

Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q)
The PML-Q was cobbled together mainly from other parties’ defectors under military dictator Pervez Musharraf [EPA]

Former ‘King’s party’ under Pervez Musharraf has maintained its position in parliament and could be coalition king-maker.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) was the third-largest party in the 2008-2013 parliament, with 54 seats in the National Assembly. The PML-Q began its time in the opposition, but by the end of the last government’s term it had switched to the Treasury benches, helping the PPP to maintain its coalition and being rewarded with leadership positions for Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, a senior PML-Q leader, and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the PML-Q’s president.

Formed in 2002, the PML-Q is a centre-right party drawn primarily from defectors from the rival PML-N who chose to support General Pervez Musharraf in the aftermath of his coup against the democratically elected government. The party led the government under Musharraf, with members Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Shaukat Aziz all serving as prime ministers under Musharraf’s presidency.

The 2008 elections, occurring in the midst of mass anti-Musharraf sentiment, a spiralling inflation rate and failing economic policies, saw the PML-Q defeated in many constituencies in favour of PML-N and PPP candidates. It held on to key constituencies in its stronghold of Punjab, however, and remained a force in parliament, whether in opposition or government.

In 2013, the PML-Q will once again be focusing on Punjab and Balochistan provinces, where it has had strong showings in the past. The party is not expected to be able to form a government on its own, but would be a key player in terms of building a coalition for whichever party emerges as the leader after the polls.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)
The Bhutto family has led the Pakistan People’s Party since its inception over 40 years ago [Getty Images]

Incumbent party is expected to pay at the 2013 polls for poor governance and a deteriorating economy.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is the incumbent party in the 2013 elections, having led a coalition government through a tumultuous period in Pakistan’s political history. The party won 124 out of a possible 272 seats in the National Assembly after the 2008 polls, largely due to anti-incumbent sentiment amongst voters and a swell in support following the assassination of party leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Founded in 1967 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, the PPP positions itself as a secular, centre-left socialist party, with a strong emphasis on using public-sector expenditure as a way to address income and social disparities. The party has been voted into power four times since its inception (1977, 1988, 1993 and 2008), but this last term was the first time it completed its full five-year term in office – making it the first Pakistani civilian-led government to do so.

Since its formation, the PPP has been a major political player, relying on a combination of pro-poor rhetoric and inspirational leadership (primarily in the form of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto – both of whom were killed while carrying out political activities and are considered martyrs by the PPP faithful). The party, to many voters, represents a force that stands against the country’s powerful military and civilian establishment – even if that analysis does not stand up to substantive scrutiny when examining the PPP’s stints in government.

This election, however, the party faces rampant anti-incumbent sentiment of its own, as Pakistanis suffer from high levels of unemployment, inflation, a power crisis and a complex and deteriorating security situation that the PPP-led government appeared powerless to address. The party has also been perennially dogged by corruption allegations – most notably those aimed at its leader, President Asif Ali Zardari. There is also some dissatisfaction among the PPP cadre as to how Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, has run the party since her death, sidelining many party stalwarts and installing people loyal to him in key positions. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, his 24-year-old son, has been appointed the party chairman, continuing the legacy of Bhutto’s leading the party. It remains to be seen what role, however, the young Bhutto-Zardari plays in the election campaign.

The party is expected to hold sway in its traditional stronghold of Sindh province, but will face stiff competition in Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)
PTI has gathered huge amounts of support at rallies, but it is unclear if that will translate to votes on election day [EPA]

‘Anti-status quo’ party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan promises drastic reforms across the board.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or Movement for Justice) is the wild card in this year’s parliamentary race. Led by Imran Khan, this party was formed in 1996, after Khan retired following a remarkably successful career as an international cricketer. The party’s aim was primarily to wipe out corruption and tackle ineffective governance in a country where both have crippled attempts at government service delivery.

The PTI was largely politically irrelevant for the first decade or so of its existence, but shot to prominence in 2012 when it held massive political rallies in Lahore, Karachi and elsewhere.

The party’s platform remains largely unchanged: Khan promises that he will wipe out “major corruption” within the party’s first 90 days in office, and its manifesto states that it is built on an “anti-status quo” foundation. The party also says that it will declare a “national emergency” on energy-sector reform, expenditure reform, revenue collection and development of human capital indicators. Khan has promised to establish an “Islamic welfare state” in several campaign speeches.

The party’s policy on homegrown militancy advocates an approach based on dialogue with those elements wishing to lay down their arms and a disengagement from the country’s current alliance with the United States, citing the partnership as one of the key causes of militancy against the Pakistani state.

Electorally speaking, the PTI has bolstered its ranks with former members of the parties it has slammed in the past for exercising patronage politics, and will likely give the PML-N and PML-Q a tough fight in rural constituencies in Punjab. It also provides an alternative to the secular ANP and religiously conservative JUI-F in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. In Sindh it has positioned itself as an alternative to the MQM, long accused of exercising a violent brand of politics, in the province’s urban areas.

Source: Al Jazeera