The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Whether general elections are held later this year or early 2013, the country is headed towards the most unpredictable polls in its recent history.
The confluence of multiple crises makes the environment for this election significantly different from the past. Elections that followed protracted periods of military rule also proceeded in the backdrop of turmoil and crisis. But the unparalleled array of complex challenges today imparts far greater uncertainty to the election process, and that too at a time when the political landscape is being transformed by other dynamics.
The key question this raises is whether such an environment presents the possibility of continuity or change at the ballot box? Stability or volatility in voting behaviour?
Conventional political wisdom holds that the country’s entrenched political parties will continue to dominate the polls. Despite the wave of urbanisation and associated socio-economic changes sweeping Pakistan in recent decades, electoral politics will continue to pivot around traditional allegiances and transactional patterns of behaviour. Only the established parties know how to leverage these to win votes.
The vote banks of major parties largely rest on networks of rural and urban influentials, so-called ‘electables’, who use their local position and access to state patronage to mobilise followers and cement party support. Voter mobilisation especially in Punjab primarily entails working clan and biradari connections and alliances and enlisting the support of influential families. This mode of representative politics is reinforced by Punjab’s constituency demarcations, which reflect the distribution of kinship and biradari groups. These have remained unchanged for decades.
Constituency politics embedded in such clientelist structures privileges the two parties that have alternated in power for the past several decades – PPP and the Muslim League in its various incarnations. This gives them a hold over voter loyalties in the Punjab and rural Sindh that rivals and newer forces find hard to dislodge. Independent candidates who win often deploy the same patron-client strategies pursued by the two major parties.
The 1970 election was of course the grand exception. Then a powerful idea combined with a charismatic personality to rally popular support and challenge the ascendancy of rural and urban elites in Punjab. This trumped and overrode traditional alignments. It ushered in a phase of populist politics. But that proved to be short lived not only due to the 1977 military intervention, but because the PPP transformed itself by moving to rely on the very elites it once challenged. Elections in the 1990s as well as in the 2000s saw the reassertion of traditional electoral politics.
This lends weight to the argument that the coming election will be more of the same, with mobilisation of traditional vote banks and local alignments determining the outcome. One of the two major parties will end up winning a plurality though probably not a majority, and be able to cobble together a coalition government.
This view overlooks several factors pointing in a different direction, which could make individual contests and the overall outcome more unpredictable than generally assumed. A set of diverse factors offers a compelling argument for electoral volatility ahead and a hard-to-forecast scenario emerging from elections.
Six partially overlapping factors merit consideration. One, almost all parties represented in parliament hold government office today whether at the centre or the provinces. When virtually everyone is an incumbent it is unclear who, if anyone, will be the beneficiary of anti-incumbency sentiment at a time of growing public disenchantment with those in power. This sentiment can express itself in a further fall in voter turnout, hurting some parties more than others. It can also translate into support for an untried and untainted party.
Second and most important, the election will be held in the shadow of a foundering economy whose electoral fallout is an indeterminate factor. The economic hardship people are undergoing is likely to exact a heavy political toll on the ruling party. Just how much is unclear. Successive opinion polls have found inflation and eroding living standards topping people’s concerns, outpacing terrorism or law and order. In a recent Pew poll nine out of 10 people voiced dissatisfaction with economic conditions. Crumbling public services and crippling power outages have already triggered countrywide protests and are the most visible symbol of government failure.
Voter anger will be directed against those deemed responsible for this dire situation. The alibi the PPP has long used – blaming this on the legacy it inherited – will not work any more because it has been in power long enough to seriously address economic problems. The Pew poll found that compared to a majority who thought the economy was doing well in 2005, an overwhelming majority of people today believes the economy is doing very badly.
The question is whether this public disaffection will express itself in a ‘protest vote’, simply to punish the incumbent, or lead to a switch in loyalty that begins to realign Pakistani politics. For the first time voters will have an alternative to switch loyalties to: the ‘third political force” represented by Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Three, past elections have demonstrated that voters generally reject and punish expedient and unprincipled election alliances. As the election will see the PPP and the Q League seat-sharing and deal-making across the Punjab, this could alienate rather than galvanise voters of both parties whose followers will be asked to support candidates they disapprove of. Rather than secure electoral success ‘joint’ candidates will risk losing to opponents who have shown fidelity to their party.
Four, there is uncertainty whether the ranks of non-voters will swell or diminish in the next election. Turnout has been steadily declining for reasons that range from voter disinterest in the political process to disaffection with the usual political line-up and rejection of the narrow choice offered at the ballot box. A ‘plague on both houses’ sentiment seems to be in play here.
In 2008 the majority of the electorate did not vote even though elections took place after a long period of military rule. Non-voters accounted for as much as 56 percent of registered voters. In terms of the voting age population, turnout was just 38.8 percent.
These dismal figures are surprising when set against other indicators that suggest high public interest in politics and greater middle-class activism on political issues. The tantalising question this raises is whether there is a political leader who can motivate those who have chosen not to vote in the past to show up in large enough numbers to be a game changer. It is too early to judge whether voter passions ignited this way can dent or overwhelm the traditional support base of the major parties. But political space has opened up to present such an opportunity.
This is also because of a fifth factor: emergence of a larger urban middle class striving for a bigger political voice in the country. Having largely stayed away from participating in past elections, members of the middle class are increasingly seeking to engage in politics to press their demand for accountable and better governance. The party that can represent their aspirations, as well as those of the growing legion of young voters, can reap rich electoral dividends.
The sixth factor relates to the role of the broadcast media. With its exponential growth and vast reach this has already encroached on the traditional sphere of parties to become another determinant of the political game. How the media shapes the agenda for the elections will inject new dynamics into an electoral terrain that is already in considerable flux.
The interplay between these factors can set off dynamics to change traditional voting behaviour, and this in turn can produce unpredictable results. Much of course will depend on the state of play nearer the election, how parties square off in their campaigns and strategies and whether anyone is able to generate a ‘wave’. But for now it would be a mistake to presume that the approaching election will merely mimic past ones.