The ever-evolving role of electables

May 28, 2023

Historically, Pakistan’s electoral landscape has largely been dominated by electables and dynastic politics. Will that remain the case?

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he current wave of switching of loyalties by the political elite has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the political system in Pakistan. The power dynamics have been transformed once again. During the previous election, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had enjoyed the support of many ‘electables’ – potential winners in their constituencies that were largely managed by the powerful establishment. Now, with some of the PTI leaders confronting the establishment, a tough choice has been created for these ‘electables.’

The PTI had, until recently, enjoyed mass popular support under the charismatic leadership of Imran Khan. He had proven himself a great crowd puller. Many ‘electables’ had been aspiring for the PTI tickets, as the PTI was perceived as an assured winner and the future ruling party. But the violent incidents of May 9 have radically transformed the political landscape. This is, in part, due to switching of loyalties by the ‘electables’. The situation has catastrophic implications for the party. The leadership insists that these shifts are not going to affect the party and that the vote bank is loyal to Imran Khan. The setback has once again exposed the weak organisational structure of political parties and their vulnerability to intervention by the establishment.

Some of the PTI’s critics now predict that the process triggered by May 9 incidents will reduce its parliamentary strength to the pre-2018 level. Others say, however, that Pakistan has gone through a massive political transformation and that the PTI continues to enjoy popular support.

The questions arise then: will the PTI be able to overcome the influence of the ‘electables’? Will it manage to win the constituencies with new candidates? Historically, the electoral landscape has been dominated by the ‘electables’ and dynastic politics. As constituency leaders, the ‘electables’ enjoy the sustained support of the electorate consolidated through their patronage network, networks of alliances and influence at the local level. To large measure, they determine the electoral fate of the political parties. The frequent switching of loyalties in the recent electoral cycles has exposed the fragility of the democratic system in Pakistan. The establishment’s intervention in the political system has been facilitated largely by the agency of these ‘electables’.

In the past, most political parties have depended on local heavyweights. The parties lack funds and resources to manage local party offices. Local party organisation and structures are largely managed by local leaders. This includes nominations without holding intra-party elections. Most political parties have failed to maintain direct contact with the masses. As such, an intermediary is required between the party and the voters. Most of the voters seek development and patronage benefits. The ‘electables’ serve this purpose through their allies in the power structure. At the local level, most development projects are facilitated through these ‘electables’.

The current political stalemate has created a dilemma for these ‘electables’. The PTI managed last year to defeat several turncoats in the by-elections in the Punjab. That electoral victory boosted the morale of the party and inflicted a heavy damage on its political opponents. It also encouraged the hawkish elements in the party. Imran Khan too responded to the aggressive tone of the social media warriors and radicalised the party cadres. That aggressiveness has now landed the party in hot waters.

Some of the ‘electables’ have chosen to stay away from politics for some time. Others are looking for their future political parties. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is a ‘saturated’ party. It has candidates in almost all constituencies in the Punjab. However, it can accommodate some ‘electables’ in the other three provinces. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) can accommodate them in all provinces except Sindh. The PTI claims that it can defeat these ‘electables’ with its popular support base.

Imran Khan had founded the PTI with a slogan of change. The party had launched some new faces in the 1997 election and presented itself as a third force. The electorate largely ignored it and the party received only 1 percent of the vote. A similar performance was repeated in the 2002 elections after the party failed to garner the patronage of the Musharraf regime. Lacking ‘electables’, the PTI tactfully boycotted the 2008 elections. After its revival in 2011, some of the ‘electables’ opted to join the party on receiving a green signal from the establishment. The party participated in the 2013 elections with the patronage and facilitation of the establishment. That facilitation continued during the 2018 elections when the establishment also mobilised its resources to restrict the PML-N.

The PML-N case is also instructive. In 1997, the party had won a two-thirds majority with the facilitation of the establishment. However, it was reduced to an 18-member party after the 2002 elections. The establishment intervention had forced the ‘electables’ to switch sides. In the post-Musharraf era, the PML-N was again able to attract the ‘electables’. This helped it improve its performance in the 2008 elections and it secured a majority in the 2013 elections.

In recent times, party identity and association have gained some ground. The rise of popular leaders, increasing urbanisation, the proliferation of mass media and the use of social media platforms have politicised the masses. Even in rural areas, people now frame their political opinions differently and the society appears more polarised. New trends can emerge ahead of the coming elections. The traditional patterns of block voting, where biraderi and caste identification determined the voting behaviour, might be replaced with individual choice. Such a socio-economic transition will have serious implications for the establishment interventions as well.

The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is an assistant professor in Pakistan studies at Allama Iqbal Open University,Islamabad. H can be reached

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