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Wednesday April 17, 2024

Dynamics of a political oligopoly

By Hussain H Zaidi
March 02, 2024
(From L to R) Former PM Shahbaz Sharif, former Present Asif Zardari, and  PPP Chairmen Bilawal Bhutto during the press conference on February 20, 2024. — Facebook/Pakistan Peoples Party - PPP
(From L to R) Former PM Shahbaz Sharif, former Present Asif Zardari, and PPP Chairmen Bilawal Bhutto during the press conference on February 20, 2024. — Facebook/Pakistan Peoples Party - PPP

One of the unintended, yet predictable, outcomes of the rise of the PTI is that it has allowed the PML-N and the PPP, which remained at daggers drawn during the turbulent decade of the 1990s, to become bedfellows. In a larger context, it has changed Pakistan’s political landscape from a duopoly to an oligopoly. Having jointly ruled the country from April 2022 to August 2023, the two parties are playing ball again.

A duopolistic political market or the bi-party system which is ruled by two mega players leaves the stakeholders – voters and movers and shakers – with a limited choice. If it isn’t one party or the leader, it must be the other. If it isn’t Hilary, it must be Trump. If it isn’t Trump, it must be Biden. Yes, the electorate can choose to vote for a third party, but their choice will not bear upon the political outcome.

Hence, during the 1990s, in a game of musical chairs the PPP and the PML-N took turns in the exercise of power. In 1990, the PPP government, which was voted to power in 1988, was sacked only to bring the PML-N into the saddle. In 1993, the PML-N government was shown the door only to induct the PPP into power. In 1996, the PPP government was dismissed for a second time to make way for the PML-N. But for the coup that was staged in October 1999, the game of musical chairs would’ve continued into the new millennium.

In the singular context of Pakistani politics, the duopoly meant the movers and shakers couldn’t afford to throw overboard both parties at the same time. They were compelled to put their money on one of them, even if they trusted neither. Another implication of the duopolistic political structure was that the PPP and the PML-N would remain at each other’s throats, as both competed fiercely for a scarce resource – political power. A pact like the Charter of Democracy (CoD), which committed both parties to making common cause against a common adversary, could not see the light of day. Such were the rules of the game, which were obvious to all and binding on all regardless of how powerful they were.

The duopolistic structure gives the stakeholders a clear-cut choice. At the same time, it constrains their choices, as they have to choose one of the two players, even if they don’t have any preference between them.

The entry of the third player in the political arena upends the simple duopolistic model. Now the movers and shakers have more strings to their bow. Instead of being constrained to choose ‘A’ or ‘B,’ they can turn their back on both and fix on ‘C’. They can also afford to direct their guns towards both ‘A’ and ‘B’ at the same time without having to upset the existing applecart.

The political façade that was put in place by the Musharraf regime from 2002-2007 represented a transition from a duopoly to an oligopoly. The third player, besides the PPP and the PML-N, was the PML-Q. The last mentioned was the king’s party comprising largely PML-N dissidents and later some PPP dissidents as well. It was during that period that the top leadership of the PPP and the PML-N, banished from the country, met in London and inked the CoD. The CoD was another indication that national politics had moved from a duopoly to an oligopoly.

However, the new oligopolistic structure turned out to be more of a contrivance than of genuine political evolution. Towards the end of his rule, an increasingly unpopular General Pervez Musharraf had made up his mind to throw the PML-Q on the scrapheap and curry favour with the PPP, which ushered in the promulgation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Having been left on its own, the PML-Q took a pounding in the 2008 national elections. The PPP formed the government at the centre, while the PML-N took the largest province of Punjab.

Just when it seemed that breaking the political duopoly was a tall order, the PTI, which until then had been a political non-entity shunned by the stakeholders, suddenly began to draw political heavyweights one after the other to its folds. From being the head of virtually a one-man party, Imran Khan became one of the most sought-after political leaders. For a second time, the political duopoly was showing signs of giving place to an oligopoly.

One of the most significant implications of the rise of the PTI was that if the PML-N fell out of favour with the movers and shakers, the PPP wouldn’t necessarily be the principal beneficiary. Hence in the wake of the-then PM Nawaz Sharif’s fall in 2017, despite the PPP’s desperate attempts to suck up to the movers and shakers, luck smiled on the PTI.

At the other end of the scale, the PTI’s rise made possible what was inconceivable during the 1990s – the PPP and the PML-N allying against the government of the day. Though the alliance suffered one setback after the other, in the end it was able to vote out the PTI with the help of some smaller parties. Among others, it indicated that political oligopoly had come of age in Pakistan.

As in 2018, the 2024 national elections have produced a hung parliament, with one vital difference: whereas in 2018, the PTI could form the government without the support of either the PPP or the PML-N; in the current scenario, at least two frontline parties must join hands to set up a coalition. Although the PTI-backed candidates bagged more seats than any other party, the only way it could return to power was to ally with either the PPP or the PML-N. If you aren’t the winner who takes all, you must either play ball with another player or be content with sitting outside. In an oligopoly, seldom does a winner take all.

Oligopolies have another salient feature, namely the prisoners’ dilemma. Although cooperation is in the mutual interest of the partners, each constituent of the coalition has an incentive to cheat. The reason: each party thinks that if it honours its commitments, while the other defects, the defecting party may gain. That happened during 2007-08 when despite signing the CoD, the PPP negotiated and signed a deal with the then regime, leaving the PML-N high and dry.

On the last occasion the PPP and the PML-N rubbed shoulders, their coalition completed its term. But at the time, the coalition, led by the PML-N, was meant to be a short-term arrangement. Now their coalition, skippered again by the PML-N, will have to negotiate for a full five years at a time when the economy is in hot waters and some exceedingly unpopular decisions are imminent. The PPP reckons that the best scenario for it will be to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds: be in the alliance without formally being part of the government and have the lion’s share in top constitutional offices.

This is an astute move. It will give the party power without responsibility – the privilege of the de facto powers through the ages – as well as allow it to jump off the ship the moment it starts showing the slightest signs of sinking. The coalition’s fate will also be in part determined by the choices of the third player of the oligopoly. In case the PTI continues to play win-lose, the coalition may live longer than it would if the PTI opted for a win-win outcome.


The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets/posts @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com