Given the socio-political and economic crises, what factors can influence voting patterns?
akistan is going through a prolonged political turmoil and economic meltdown causing severe issues for the public at large. The political temperature is unprecedently high because, amid several uncertainties, provincial elections in the Punjab and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are expected to be held in the coming months. The caretaker governments in two provinces have been formed and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has declared April 30 the election day in the Punjab. If elections are held on this date, there are several factors that will impact the mood of the voting public.
The unhappiness of the public regarding the economic performance of the incumbents usually translates into a political challenge for the government in saddle and a benefit to the opposition parties. The current economic crisis is unheard of in the history of Pakistan. Inflation rate in rural areas, particularly on edible food items, is reaching an unprecedented level of 45 percent. Unemployment rate in rural areas has skyrocketed because of setbacks in construction and agriculture sectors. For the 2022 season, the government-fixed support price of wheat was Rs 2,200/ 40 kg but now it has been raised to Rs 4,000/ 40 kg. Prices of other edible items are also rising on a daily basis. The 2022 floods destroyed the agricultural sector in southern Punjab and Sindh. The wheat production in these areas is feared to be lower because of lack of rains in the winter. The month of Ramazan tends to create a greater demand for edibles. It is feared that this demand will result in worsening the inflation rate. Inflation is going to be the most significant factor in the minds of the public during the voting season.
The second most important factor concerning the public is the concept of corruption and lawlessness at the cost of public welfare. Former prime minister Imran Khan and other leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have persuaded many that the alliance between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is a nexus cobbled to defy accountability. Given that about 40 percent of the public is a regular consumer of internet and social media platforms and that the PTI and Imran Khan enjoy an unparalleled sway on these platforms, the corruption narrative has permeated the public at large. At least on social media, the narrative is critical of the powers that be. The narrative of corruption could become a strong factor though we are still short of declaring it as a solid reason to win elections.
In recent years, Pakistanis have started leaving the country to seek employment in the Middle East, Europe and North American countries. Once there, they compare the governance and stability with the turmoil in the Pakistani economy and grumble about the failure of political leadership. In 2018 elections, their influence in Pakistan was witnessed for the first time. From 2018-2022, many overseas Pakistanis posed strong confidence in Imran Khan’s government. This resulted in an increase in remittances to the country and investment in government schemes such as the Roshan Digital Account. Since his ouster from the government, the enthusiasm has abated significantly. These overseas Pakistanis have been disenfranchised by the Shahbaz Sharif government after they were given the right to vote by Imran Khan government. In the upcoming elections, these unhappy overseas Pakistanis can play an important role possibly by funding PTI’s electoral campaign.
It is important to understand that today’s Pakistan is significantly different from what it was a decade ago. Rapid urbanisation, changing nature of jobs and professions, burgeoning young population and high poverty rates are resulting in unique governance challenges. Traditional social networks such as baraderie and clans are being replaced by independent youth frustrated with a lack opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility due to inflation, substandard education and a lack of professional and skills training. Their political independence means that politicians can no longer rely on traditional tactics to win elections. In the urban areas, educated and self-made successful people are politicising to become new leaders, at least at the local level. In the upcoming elections, these demographic transformations will challenge traditional political stalwarts.
Today’s Pakistan is a highly polarised society. This polarisation is not limited to politics only, though it is the most prominent aspect of the multifaceted crisis we are in. The political class has turned its disagreements into enmities. Politics of revenge has returned to Pakistan with full force, dividing the nation into two segments, each seeing the other as traitors. From economic point of view, the middle class has shrunk. More importantly, the gap between the richest and the poorest has widened immensely. The country is visibly divided into those who have access to resources and can amass as much wealth as they desire, and those who struggle to feed their children. Natural calamities have worsened their grievances. This economic polarisation is causing a variety of socio-economic challenges and affecting the already ineffective governance. However, we do not see this economic disparity converting into a political weapon of the poor majority against the rich elites just yet. An overwhelming overlapping of political and economic elites means that popular political leaders will keep serving their economic interests.
Lastly, Pakistan is increasingly reaching a stage where business as usual will stop functioning. From revenue generation to development and from education to food security, it is in dire need of structural reforms. The political leadership of the country is polarised and unable to navigate through this crisis.
The writer is a lecturer at Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, USA.He can be reached at slasharitamu.edu