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March 6, 2016

Not enough morons


March 6, 2016

It’s a conundrum that Pakistanis know quite well: how can so many people be so enamoured of a bombastic, big-talking leader with no political experience?

In the case of Donald Trump, answers fall into one of two categories: (i) the Republican electorate is made up of not very smart racists; (ii) white Americans are scared about their jobs and they don’t trust their political parties.

I have no idea whether Trump will win the election or not but I am greatly comforted by what Bill James, a noted statistician, had to say. As he put it, “A certain percentage of the American public is just morons; that’s the way it is.” On the other hand, his conclusion was that Trump couldn’t win the general election because “I don’t think there are enough morons to elect him.”

The reason I bring up Trump is because there is a big picture point that people need to remember: never take politics for granted. Times change and parties need to move on to stay relevant. Those who remember this basic fact will stay alive. Others will die.

Let’s come back to Pakistan now. Which way are the political tectonic plates moving?

The single most important factor in Pakistani politics is the rise of the youth vote. Our population is becoming younger and younger and as a consequence, so is the median voter.

What that means is that, first and foremost, delivery counts: parties will be increasingly judged by what they have built and what they have delivered, not by what their ancestors did. The fall of Dhaka today is about as relevant to the average voter as the sack of Rome by Attilla the Hun.

Second, ideology is becoming less important. Instead, people are voting on performance with respect to universal concerns like security, education, urban infrastructure and healthcare.

Part of the reason why less and less people are now voting for a manifesto or a vision is because they see too many interchangeable talking heads on television making pronouncement after pronouncement. Believing in a message is greatly helped by believing in the messenger. None of today’s politicians now inspires the sort of devotion which attended, for example, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. We simply know too much about our current leaders, their private lives and foibles, not to mention their alleged misdeeds. This is a case in which the familiarity bred by television and cable news has bred contempt.

Let’s return now to Pakistan’s political space. What does it mean for the big three political parties, namely the PPP, the PTI and the PML-N.

In the case of the PPP, one is looking at a party that is increasingly irrelevant. It is a party that is not just governed from afar but one which is mentally in exile. The PPP’s social media presence, for example, is not defined by the party itself as much as it is by the tweets of the Bhutto-Zardari siblings. And what one gathers from their timelines is that they appear to be more excited about UAE National Day and the release of a new season of House of Cards than Pakistani politics. Who can blame them?

The PTI, by comparison, is still vibrant. At the same time, the PTI is also in the middle of an identity crisis, like a punk rocker trying to deal with the responsibilities of being a parent. Is it still the party of revolt and revolution? Or is it the party that has brought transparency to governance in KP? Neither the party nor its voters are quite sure as to the answers on those fronts.

The N League seems to be sitting pretty, rolling out one big project after another, the latest being the launch of the Green Line bus service in Karachi. But is that really going to be enough in 2018? Can it really afford to get complacent about its patented mixture of centre-right politics and ‘bricks and mortar’?

At least in my view, the answer is that the PML-N has the political space to expand its ideological horizons and, by implication, its voter base. Let me explain.

There are a million different ways to analyse the ideology of different political parties but I’m going to restrict my analysis of political parties to two different questions: Where does the party stand in terms of economic policy (ie free market vs state control)? Where does the party stand in terms of social freedoms (ie liberal vs conservative)?

I concede that my schematic is hopelessly over-simplified and confusing. That caveat aside, even this basic analysis indicates one interesting point: out of the major parties, the choices are between parties which are both economically left-wing and culturally liberal (the PPP) and parties which are both economically right-wing and culturally conservative (the PML-N and the PTI). What is missing from this typology are two types of parties: (i) those which are economically left wing and culturally conservative; and (ii) those which are economically right-wing and socially liberal.

So far as I am concerned, an economically left-wing, socially conservative party would be the worst of all possible worlds. Accordingly I’m not going to spend much time on that option. On the other hand, so far as my personal preferences are concerned, I would welcome a culturally liberal, free-market oriented political party. And I don’t think I’m alone in this one.

Assume that I’m right on this one. If so, what changes should the major political parties be making?

I can’t speak for the PPP because so far as I can tell, the PPP is not just decaying but actually dead. Yes, I know, it still wins votes in interior Sindh. But as the saying goes, mara hua hathi bhi sava lakh ka hota hai.

As far as the PTI is concerned, its problem is that it has gambled everything on choosing to attack the PML-N from the right flank (hence the alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami). In theory, there is nothing to prevent the PTI from ditching the mullahs and choosing to go socially liberal. But there are limits to acceptability when it comes to schizophrenic behaviour, even in the case of political parties.

That leaves the PML-N. The problem with the PML-N is that its origins date back to the IJI, a crab-bag of conservative parties united only by their opposition to Benazir Bhutto. At the same time, it needs to be remembered that 1988 was a long time ago. By the time BB was thrown out for a second time, the PML-N had metamorphosed into a genuine party as shown by the fact that while the party suffered during the Sharif’s years of exile, it didn’t disappear either.

My further point is that the PML-N has sufficient credibility and history on the centre-right front that it can easily extend itself towards the centre without too much fear of losing its core voters.

More importantly, the additional benefit of liberalisation is that it will make it a lot easier to attract the youth vote. The voters aged between 20 and 30 in the next election will form a huge bloc, especially in urban seats. Between multiple cable channels, the internet and new entertainment options, today’s media culture has also made these voters extremely sophisticated in terms of political exposure. Simply selling them more of the same is not going to be enough.

2018 is still some years away. Given our past history, it may yet be optimistic to assume that elections will be held. But assuming they are, it will be interesting to see how our parties adjust to the new political realities of Pakistan.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah

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