There is no genuinely liberal political party in Pakistan today

Published: November 10, 2016

Pakistan by no stretch of the imagination is still a “moderate” country with adequate presence of liberal narratives.

At times, the electoral landscape – which by the way is still dominated by apparently moderate parties – is cited as an example of Pakistan’s resilience against growing fundamentalism. It is often claimed that Pakistan has never voted for religious parties and this is trumped as some kind of evidence of moderation or even quasi “liberalism”.

Without sounding over pessimistic or critical in a self-fledgling kind of a way, I beg to refute this perception. I think the electoral landscape is misleading. Yes, while it is true that Pakistan has not become Iran, it is by no stretch of the imagination still a “moderate” country with adequate presence of liberal narratives.

It is not that moderates do not exist. As I write these sentences, they still form a huge majority. It is just that due to a series of complex developments, both international and domestic, the political as well as public space is being ceded to religious right reactionaries, and ultra-nationalists. As they take the centre stage, it is their discourse and their narrative which is overwhelmingly dominant. This narrative is nationalist, believes in aggressive foreign policy centred on a deep mistrust of the outside world (barring China and Islamic countries), eulogises military and assumes that nuclear arsenal is a prized possession giving Pakistan a kind of prestige and invincibility. This narrative has created a collective mind-set which is deeply resentful of any liberal who is critical of state positions.

There is no effective liberal counter narrative today (a few articles in the English press cannot be considered as a narrative), only various strains of right-wing explanations and ‘solutions’. Some of these take a religious tinge while some apparently come cloaked in ‘modern’ jingo. However, virtually all are serving the right-wing agenda. Consequently the population, particularly the urban population is increasingly becoming ideologically homogeneous.

This absolute dominance of right-wing narrative means that political parties also have to make adjustments to remain ‘relevant’. Being right-wing is no longer a matter of political orientation but of basic survival. What has happened is that virtually all parties have moved towards the right side of the political spectrum while maintaining their mutual differences. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has always been a conservative party and remains so despite some commendable legislative initiatives such as the passing of the women’s protection bill. Today Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is liberal only in the relative sense and perhaps could be rightly termed as only the “least” right-wing of all the major parties. What has actually happened is that as the ideological atmosphere has become more religious and nationalist right, all the parties in order to be “viable” have made adjustments.

Thus one is not surprised that Awami National Party’s (ANP) minister, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, once promised $100,000 to anyone who can kill the director of Innocence of Muslims. Now ANP is Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s party, which even during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (struggle against which was trumpeted as a “just” holy war even by the US) voiced its continuous opposition against the Afghan Mujahedeen and rightly called the Afghan resistance a misguided warWhen a minister from a secular party like ANP starts offering bounties like this, it is more than clear which way the wind is blowing.

And as the urbanisation grows and the rural majority is eroded, the shape of the politics will veer away from traditional constituency based politics (which is characterised by caste, kinship and local ties) towards ideological driven politics. In general this is a good development but in Pakistan’s context, I am not really sure as there are no liberal alternatives or even narratives. The urban society unfortunately makes radicalisation much easier as the structure is conducive to ideological influences. In an ideologically heterogeneous society, urbanisation can result in a host of possibilities, including some really progressive ones. However, where there is just one kind of ideological narrative, this may spell doom.

In fact, as the rise of PTI clearly demonstrates that growing urbanisation actually becomes a modus operandi for the promotion of right-wing and ideologically reactionary politics. Imran Khan’s political rise is not just a product of the so-called establishment but actually owes a lot to dominance of various strains of just one kind of narrative. Imran Khan articulates and in fact ‘sums up’ all the strains effectively and has been able to bring varying ideological groups of the same side of the political spectrum under one umbrella. His ‘success’ in the urban areas, particularly of Punjab, has merely forced all the other parties to adopt similar stance.

An overwhelming number of PTI followers, hails from urban areas and are young and yet we hardly find any progressive voices emerging from them. If anything, they hate Malala, think that liberals like Asma Jahangir and Marvi Sirmed are traitors (just see the Twitter account of these two as well as other liberals and you will find most of the trolls abusing them are from PTI), and that Pakistan’s problems pertaining to religious extremism are a result of deep conspiracies of the foreign powers. We hardly hear anything substantial from them regarding women’s rights or protection of minorities. Instead the overwhelming concern is just with the word “corruption” followed by nonstop glorification of the armed forces and disproportionate focus on issues related to foreign policy. In fact, their leader Imran Khan once even called liberals the scum of the country.

Whereas in an ideologically diverse polity, political parties can select their ideological niche from a large number of positions (from both left and right) in Pakistan due to absence of a counter liberal narrative, political parties are just jockeying for various right-wing positions. It is small wonder that at times Bilawal Bhutto, although the most liberal in outlook, had to raise “nationalist” concerns while campaigning in Azad Kashmir. In fact he even went to the extent of calling Nawaz Sharif, “Modi ka Yaar”, (Modi’s friend). One feels for Bilawal as I genuinely think that he is the right person but at the wrong time.

There is no genuinely liberal political party in Pakistan today and absence of that will further drag us down. Liberals in Pakistan are fighting a losing battle.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Feroz

    Excellent analysis of the current political spectrum and the dangers it poses to when all are buying into one story. It fortifies the status quo and ensures the change needed may never come.Recommend

  • hamza khan

    musharraf could have started something, as many of his moves were progressive (protection of minorities, women, celebration of certain festivals, etc). but we know that pakistanis cannot have too much of a good thingRecommend

  • Fahim

    Feeling happy to read ” Liberals in Pakistan are fighting a losing battle.”Recommend

  • AH

    I think you need to revisit your definition of liberal. Too many people think that you cant follow a religion if you are liberal. No, that’s just wrong. Secular isn’t automatically liberal. For example, if Asma Jahangir was truly liberal, she would actually care more about human rights and not just human rights when it suits her cause. When PTI workers were getting beat with dandas by the police, she would speak up. That’s what a true liberal would do–one that cares for humanity and human rights (as any real Muslim should). What is right is right, even when your enemy is the one preaching it. Liberal isn’t just westernized..which is what most Pakistanis think it is. Most Pakistani “liberals” as well as the super conservative Pakistanis that actually don’t know anything about Islam are equally frustrating to talk to.Recommend

  • farhan

    InshAllah we will have an islamic country one day..No matter what a liberal says…Land of Allah but rules of men??..Thats unjust..We love islam there should not be any semi-liberal party in the country..Recommend

  • Muzz

    There is no genuine liberal political party in the United States either!Recommend

  • sher khan

    So what’s the problem?? I think that the bigger problem should be that in Pakistan an emergency person was forced to reached hospital on donkey’s cart. more then 100 person got aids when exposed to dirty equipment when on dialysis. A person getting accidents on the roads far from main cities have no where to go for major emergency treatment or even minor…. and the list goes on

    In china a person got ear transplant. South korea is going to have an elevated city and we are talking about fight between mullasim and liberalism. wow.

    But saying that I still believe in Pakistan from the core of my heart. this country has lot of potential and Pakistan is not what portrayed in the media.

    Do liberals or mullah’s have nothing else to talk about apart from liberalism or mullaism?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Pakistan can have a liberal party but to have liberalism, you need to become secular first. Jinnah was quite liberal or most liberal in his time with regard to freedom of speech, hate speech and expression, but Jinnah himself never believed in freedom of religion to the extend that he disown his only daughter and called himself a Muslim only because he practiced love Jihad.

    On the top Jinnah Fourteen points are completely against secularism. Making Pakistan secular and liberal nation will conflict whole circus of partition and Islam.Recommend

  • sher khan

    Please talk about aloo, flour prices. we are small people. we can’t understand you. once that solved we will start taking interest of what you are talking about. till that please stick to aloo, flour prices .

    just my small general suggestion to people.Recommend

  • Waseem Sarwar

    It’s one of the biggest reason of our current doom that we don’t have any liberal party from Pakistan. Unless we separate religion from politics, throw most of Molvis and their supporters in jail or hell, don’t care, we will stay runt of the litter.Recommend

  • Waseem Sarwar

    Exactly. India should also have no liberal parties and all the Muslims in India, west and US should either convert to other religions.Recommend

  • Uncle Tom

    “There is no genuinely liberal political party in Pakistan today”

    And you are just figuring this out???Recommend

  • hp kumar

    I m commenting here and I m not sure if my comment gets published.I m afraid India can no longer afford to be secular.Either modi or some other guy will take responsibility to declare India a Hindu state in coming future.That will set a bad precedence again.India is the largest democracy after all.Concept of pluralism and secularism shall evaporate from the world as an effect.Recommend

  • farhan

    Dont care about what they doRecommend

  • Ah

    I hope you feel super sophisticated after that comment. I’d like to know if you’d feel the same if you couldn’t afford aloo and flour.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    There is no genuine liberal political party in the United States either!

    Yours is the right note; RHR should recognise and acknowledge the demise of liberal politics in most democrcies of the world due to the upsurge of the nationalist far right. The USA under Trump is the latest casualty and indications are that if remained unchecked the countrys liberalism will soon be replaced by fascism and bigotry which brought extreme sufferings in the world during 20th century. The community of Nations with shared common values (Ummah for muslims) is the term used in the 21st century alliances. This is what the German chancellor Angela Merkel reminded the President elect of the USA, recognising that the American right under Trump could very easily move towards Nationalism and isolation.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • sher khan

    In less sophisticated words. i hope now you understand that, this is what i try to convey in my comment. What do i feel. If i can’t feed my children 3 times a day . if they have to take turns having breakfast. one day for one children, and other day for other.How do i feel then?. then these things will become non issue for me. simple as that. I really hope one day we become a nation where there will be no fundamental issues, from there our rise to top will start . other then that from my personal point of view, we have no chance.Recommend

  • Ram Dargad

    Author is right. Even BJP of India is more liberal than any political party in Pakistan. Modi shows full faith in India’s secular constitution. No Pakistani party dares to promote secular ideals in Pakistan. Sad to see Awami party of Badshah Khan has changed non-secular. Bangladesh has a hope in Awami league.Recommend

  • abhi

    I think now it is turn of Islamic countries to show how genuine liberal work. It is time to show western world how to care for minorities and allow freedom of speach and religion. Please take the initiative rest of the world is looking at Islamic world with hope.Recommend

  • Syed Bushra

    Liberalism is going bankrupt, not just in Pakistan, but across the world. And the only one to blame are the liberal elites themselves. They have deluded themselves so fantastically that they have lost touch with the common Pakistani. Even your blog post is about your own values, where is your concern for the average Pakistan? Why do you expect the average Pakistani to care about your ideas? Is it any surprise that they care about your ideas as much as you care about them in your writings?Recommend

  • Syed Bushra

    Liberals for Generals!

    Only in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Syed Bushra

    This is the reason why liberalism is going bankrupt. Liberals have lost touch with the common man and woman. Worse, the deep denial of liberals only makes their delusions worse. If only the people knew, they will join us; liberal thinking goes. To which I say, get a job and buy a clue!Recommend

  • Syed Bushra

    Frankly, liberal hypocrisy has turned me off from them years ago.Recommend

  • Jorge Kahwagi

    There is no genuine liberal political party in the United States either!We love islam there should not be any semi-liberal party in the count..
    Jorge Kahwagi GastineRecommend

  • A person

    Jinnah didn’t disown his daughter. It is a widespread propaganda in Pakistan that he disowned his daughter but the fact is he met his daughter after her marriage. He loved his daughter and his grandson.Recommend

  • A person

    We may never win this battle but at least we will die satisfied that we fought for what was right. I promise I will keep struggling for equal rights till my last breath.Recommend

  • Fahim

    Are you really fighting for equal rights? Recommend