Political parties have existed in Pakistan during all of its turbulent political history but have been regulated by legislation to ensure that they support the concept of Pakistan—a vestige of an early effort to repress the activities of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which had opposed Partition in 1947. Parties have been frequently banned or restricted by the government, beginning with the 1952 ban on—and suppression of—the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). In most instances, banning of political activity has simply limited overt, outdoor rallies and demonstrations, while banning of parties has left the parties essentially intact, merely forcing them underground, as in the most recent ban in 1979.
In February 1981, leaders of nine political parties opposing the martial law regime, and led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), formed the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and by declaration called for an immediate end to martial law and restoration of the parliamentary system of 1973. Following the end of martial law in 1985, political parties were legalized, although regulated by the Political Parties Act that required all parties to register to be eligible for election. The elections that followed President Zia's sacking of Prime Minister Junejo in 1986, coupled with national elections called after Zia's subsequent death in an airplane crash in 1988, have resulted in a rebirth of full and open political activity.
The populist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto, won a plurality in the National Assembly and formed a government with the support of appointed members and independents. The opposition coalesced around other parties, especially the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), as well as disaffected PPP members who had been displaced when Benazir Bhutto claimed the party leadership on her return from exile overseas in 1986. One of these, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, joined with Nawaz Sharif, the PML chief minister of Punjab, to become leader of the opposition in the Assembly. In 1990, Jatoi became interim prime minister when Benazir Bhutto was dismissed by the president.
In the elections of fall 1990, Nawaz Sharif emerged as prime minister and leader of the Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), a multi-party coalition based on Sharif's PML and the JI. But in elections in the fall of 1993, following the resignations of both the president and the prime minister, Bhutto's PPP, the lead party in the PDA, commanded a thin majority in the National Assembly, guaranteeing her return to power. The IJI came in a close second even though the Islamic parties suffered severe reverses nationally.
In the 1990s, party politics in Pakistan became increasingly regional, and party lines relatively porous, with much shifting of supporters into and out of the PPP and the PML. Each of these parties drew nearly 40% of the popular vote, and emerged as the only parties with national scope; both improved their positions in provincial assemblies.
In 1994, the PPP government depended on the support of former PML members and nonelected assembly members, plus leaders like Jatoi, a charter PPP member who had been in and out of the party in recent years. Similarly, during its period in power from 1990 to 1993, the PML formed a government only with the support of other parties, most of which have strength only in regional terms, mainly the JI, the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-Islam (JUI). And both the PPP and the PML have competed successfully in forming governments in provincial assemblies only when they have recruited (or neutralized) strong regional parties, like the Awami National Party (ANP) in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM) in Sindh.
The two main political parties up until the elections of October 2002 were Sharif's Muslim League and Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, with the Muslim League winning a resounding victory in the national elections held in February 1997. In 1996, noted Pakistan cricketer Imran Khan founded the Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or "Movement for Justice," a new political party dedicated to creating an "egalitarian, modern Islamic state" in Pakistan.
Unlike in the past, political parties were not banned under General Musharraf's military government, but they were sidelined from the political process until the 10 October 2002 parliamentary and provincial elections. In the general election, Quaid-e-Azam, a political faction of the PML supportive of Musharraf, came in first place. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party came in third, and Sharif's PML-Nawaz was a distant fourth (both Bhutto and Sharif were barred from running). A 6-party hard-line Islamic coalition, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Action Front or MMA), came in third in the polls. The MMA is dominated by Jamaat-i-Islami, and it campaigned on an anti-American platform, voicing support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. It secured voters from the middle class and in urban areas in addition to rural ones.