The PTI’s political dilemma

December 08,2015

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The recently concluded local bodies elections in Pakistan were instructive in several respects. With their conclusion, soon power will be transferred to the elected representatives at the grassroots level. This is another milestone for us, and the right step towards strengthening the democratic process in Pakistan.
If we consider these LB polls as a mid-term referendum on the ruling PML-N’s two-and-half-years performance then the overall outcome of the polls does not bode well for Imran Khan’s PTI (PTI). The PTI emerged as the second largest political party at the national level in the 2013 general elections in terms of its vote bank. Notwithstanding the immense pressure exerted on the PML-N by the PTI through the latter’s dharna politics, intra-party rivalries within the PML-N and the civil-military imbalance that shrunk space for the ruling party, the PML-N has firmly stood and defended its ground the LB polls.
Interestingly, the outcome of the local bodies polls is quite consistent with the results of the 2013 general elections. The results seem to be in keeping with the trends of traditional politics in Pakistan – the MQM emerging strong in Karachi, the PPP in rural Sindh and the PML-N in Punjab, with the PTI as a distant second in the province.
The corruption charges against the PPP in Sindh resulting in the departure of its entire top leadership to Dubai, the operation against the MQM in Karachi leading to its waning hold on the city’s politics, and the PML-N’s perfunctory performance in governance should have allowed the PTI to gain political space and ground. However, the party failed to make any substantial gains. As matter of fact, the PTI has conceded the ground it had made during the 2013 general elections.
The PTI seems to be faced with a situation of political saturation. Since the May 2013 elections, the party has remained the runner-up in most of the by-polls and the recent LB polls. The PTI think-tank will have to go back to the drawing-board to analyse the stumbling blocks that have been hindering its efforts to expand the existing pool of its support base. The party will have to figure out how it can go past the victory line at the 2018 general elections. The existing over-simplistic political approach centring on the rigging mantra has to give way to a more critical introspection. So, the PTI’s work is cut out in the run up to the 2018 general elections.
Here are some points for consideration. If we deconstruct the PTI’s current structure it comprises three main components: i) Imran Khan’s charismatic persona – the Kaptaan; ii) the narrative of Naya Pakistan – tabdeeli and the PTI’s political team – Team Kaptan.
First, Khan is a charismatic leader and a crowd-puller. He created the PTI as Pakistan’s third political force at a time when it was difficult to create a space in country’s highly contest political landscape. However, charisma and populism in politics fizzle out if not backed by solid ground work. For instance, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s charisma became his legacy because he gave Pakistan the 1973 constitution and empowered country’s have-nots by giving their demands a voice.
Similarly, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew’s charisma became his legacy because of his successful governance model that turned Singapore into a first-world oasis in a third world region. So Khan should focus on building Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as a success model of governance to back his charisma.
Second, Pakistan’s political landscape is not homogenous; in fact it is dynamic, heterogeneous and diversified. The PTI’s oversimplified and near-static Naya Pakistan narrative to the ever-changing face of Pakistani politics has rendered it out of sync with the isolated political problems of the country’s different geographical units. For instance, the political realities of Punjab are different from Sindh and that of KP are divergent from Balochistan.
Finally, notwithstanding the PTI’s ideological and revolutionary political agenda, most of its leadership has been drawn from the same system that the party opposes tooth and nail. This policy-practice paradox can also cost the PTI. The inherent dichotomy of the ‘old PTI guard’ vs the ‘new PTI guard’ and ‘idealism vs pragmatism’ has estranged the party’s younger supporters at some level. Given the fact that most of the party’s constituents are adherents of non-traditional politics, the PTI’s typical traditional political practices will alienate them sooner or later.
The PTI leadership should work on the basics to fine tune its political stratagem and create a winning combination for the next general elections. The party should reorient its political approach to issue-based politics rather than relying on the narrative of ‘Naya Pakistan’. This will provide the party with a more nuanced political narrative.
The party lags behind in its performance and participation in the parliamentary process. Despite having astute and seasoned parliamentarians like Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Asad Umar etc the party has underperformed in parliament for all practical purposes. It is about time the PTI started playing the role of a responsible opposition by pointing out gaps in the government’s performance, policies and decision-making processes. In doing so, the PTI must come up with an implementable election manifesto.
In addition, it is imperative for the PTI to build grassroots party structures, a prerequisite to win elections in Pakistan. The party should also groom younger political leaders drawn from its youth base to give them tickets in the next elections. Most importantly, the party will have to show some achievement in governance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to plead its case in the 2018 elections.
Turning around KP as a successful model of governance will provide the PTI with the right political story to pitch in the next elections. The PTI has time, human resources and the opportunity to turn its trajectory onto the ascendant path. It all depends on how it plays its cards.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and TerrorismResearch (ICPVTR) of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Email:


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