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Parties need to keep patricians in good humour

Published : Apr 24, 2018, 12:33 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2018, 12:33 am IST

The trigger for this cursory detour through history is the steady stream of political entrants to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

Benazir Bhutto (Photo: AP)
 Benazir Bhutto (Photo: AP)

The 1970 polls remain unique in Pakistan’s history not just for being the country’s first general election, but also because of the nature of political contestation they witnessed. It is perhaps the only election to date where the personal attributes of candidates mattered less than their party affiliation in large parts of the country. In both East and West Pakistan, tickets found themselves in the hands of individuals who had little electoral pedigree, and had only recently entered politics as activists of the Awami League, or the National Awami Party, or the Pakistan Peoples Party.

The importance of this “newness”, and its influence on the many outcomes that emerged from the election itself, cannot be understated. Electoral politics was not invented in 1970. There was a range of gentry politicians in rural areas who had been part of some legislative or representative council since the late 19th century. For many of them to lose seats to political upstarts, especially in the rigidly hierarchical settings of rural West Pakistan, instead of their usual faction-based and equally privileged rivals was an upset that remains unmatched in the 48 years since.

Over the subsequent years, it became readily apparent that the rupture of 1970 was short-lived, as older patterns of politicking staged a comeback. Nothing encapsulates this better than the PPP’s eventual embrace of the landed gentry ahead of the 1977 election. Whether this was down to structural impositions or Bhutto’s refusal to institutionalise the party, or a combination of both is another matter. What counts is that the populist route to upstaging entrenched political privilege was barricaded off somewhere in the mid-1970s.

The trigger for this cursory detour through history is the steady stream of political entrants to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. As predicted by many over the last two years, the party’s best bet for an upturn in electoral fortunes was Nawaz’s disqualification, followed by a messy leadership transition and ultimately, a mutiny from the PML(N)’s boatload of “electables” in rural areas. All three have happened or are happening in some form or the other.

A section of the ruling party’s representatives in south Punjab have exited with the greatest amount of pomp and show, but a more muted shuffle towards the door is simultaneously taking place in north and central Punjab. In particular, Faisalabad and Sargodha divisions may see a swathe of defections once assemblies complete their tenure by the end of next month.

Those staking a moral claim of betrayal (some ruling party supporters) and ideological failing (a few PTI supporters) on these defections are missing the point. The PTI’s electoral strategy shifted from underdog populism to calculated competition at the constituency level back in 2011, when it became apparent the PPP would no longer challenge the PML(N) in most parts of Punjab. That they failed to do well in the province in 2013 had less to do with their overarching strategy, than with the PML(N)’s far superior ability to play the same game, which, in hindsight, makes the fact of some ruling party supporters crying foul at freelancing politicians jumping out of an under-siege and out-of-sorts ship very strange.

These defections, however, do speak of the rigid nature of rural politics and the restrictions it continues to place on Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. The PTI’s political path for the foreseeable future has thus largely been set over these last few years, just as the PPP’s was set in the late 1970s, and the PML(N)’s since its inception.

Some will argue that the PTI’s success at a more traditional model of politics is good for the long run, because it strengthens it as a mainstream competitor, and raises the pressure on a decade-long incumbent. Competition, after all, is good for democracy and good for development outcomes. There are also those who inevitably argue that electoral reliance on traditional elites is simply a means to a better end, that the moral clarity of a single leader, and vigilant pressure from a core set of urban voters will ensure the mission is seen to fruition.

It is worth remembering, however, that there are implications of this model of politics for parties who make it to power. The trade-offs become a lot starker. There are more elites that need to be kept happy and onside, and thus more concessions that need to be given. Ultimately, there is a dilution of programmatic agendas, in favour of expedient concerns. This is not unique to Pakistan, it has happened in nearly every democracy across the world.

Where parties win because of their symbol and ideational appeal, and not because of the name and background of the candidate, the space to experiment once in power is greater. However, if a party’s path to power is reliant on weight of its candidates, as it is in Punjab, its future lies in keeping them, rather than the electorate, happy. This is the stage for the 2018 election, as it has been for the eight previous ones.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: pakistan