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June 25, 2018

In the court of the people


June 25, 2018

The ball is finally in the court of the people. For the next full month, they are the most important political players, even if not the final arbiters. These are the days when roles are reversed and time follows a different rhythm altogether. History tells us that the people as voters can be very unpredictable in these rare moments of empowerment, refusing to follow the predictions of the wise and the dictates of the powerful.

By now, millions of us have watched the viral video of a young man challenging his tribal chief over his performance as a legislator. “(Why are you) so proud about one voting slip (vote ki parchee)?,” asks the irritated Sardar Jamal Khan, the chief of the Leghari tribe and son of a former president of Pakistan who is contesting election on a PML-N ticket from his native constituency NA-192.

For the next 30 days or so his tribal authority and prestige hangs in the balance. He knows how these mischief-makers had defeated his grandfather, Sardar Mohammad Khan Leghari, in 1970, preferring a marginal migrant – a homeopath contesting on the ticket of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Dr Nazeer Ahmad – who was mysteriously murdered two years later.

Seven hundred kilometres in the north, hundreds of PTI workers are holding a dharna outside the residence of their leader to protest the allocation of party tickets in their constituencies. In an unprecedented move, the district management has called 300 jawans of the Rangers to protect Imran Khan from his own angry workers. These protesters will be forgotten soon if the electables recently recruited by the PTI win their constituencies and in turn coronate Imran Khan as the prime minister of Pakistan.

Elections are essentially about voters and their sentiments and, like always, there is an element of unpredictability about both. Every election brings new voters and their preferences to the ballot box. No less than 20 million new voters have been added to the voting lists this time, raising the tally from 86 million to 106 million. According to Tahri Mehdi, a leading election expert, on average, every constituency has received 75,000 new voters. If half of them vote, they can carry elections as the average victory margin during the 2013 elections was also 37,000. The demographics of these voters are unknown but we can safely guess that most of them are young men and women.

Election results will not only be determined by whom they vote for but also how many of them bother to vote at all. In 2013, we witnessed a record turnout of 53 percent, which was 9 percent higher than the 2008 elections and 13 percent higher than 2the 002 elections. Voter turnouts is one of the least neutral aspects of an election. The parties that can mobilise their voters to the ballot box benefit the most from a high turnout. On the other hand, a party with demoralised voters can lose if its voters refuse to leave their houses on election day.

In 2013, the PTI benefitted from the high turnout as it was able to mobilise young educated urban voters who had historically remained uninterested in elections. Its vote-bank spiked from a lowly one percent to an impressive 17 percent, a historical growth of 1700 percent. This time the PTI requires less than 100 percent growth, but this progress has remained elusive due to the party’s strategies which for five years remained focused on external factors.

There is hardly any indication that the PTI is in a position to make any substantial advance on its 2013 gain in terms of public opinion. The public mood appears very different from 2013, when Naya Pakistan was all the rage and the PTI was in fashion. A Gallup survey has given the PML-N a lead of 13 points in the country and 20 points in Punjab.

The PTI’s earlier narrative of corruption is almost spent and its new branding of One Pakistan has failed to resonate with the public. It has allocated a good part of its party tickets to the ‘one percent elite’ that was to be replaced with an honest middle-class leadership.

This election is also unique as the three major parties got a chance to rule over three different provinces. In the case of the PML-N, it was an extension of their earlier five-year rule. The Eighteenth Amendment put sizable resources and huge executive authority at their command. Thanks to the doubling of tax receipts at the federal level, their annual development budgets also doubled. All three parties are trying to showcase their performance in their respective provinces to impress the whole country, particularly Punjab.

The PTI is finding it difficult to impress Punjab with its performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Though it carried some ground-breaking work, the KP government was essentially trying to copy the Punjab model of development; and, in many respects, it was a substandard copy. Though its performance can be appreciated on many points, it was not a revolution by any stretch of the imagination.

The PTI has followed a two-pronged strategy to deal with this situation. The first relates to induction of a large number of electables, with some nudge from its external supporters. The infusion of seasoned electoral horses can help the party to some extent. But this policy has not been without its side effects. Like many other similar drives, more spice was added to the recipe than required. The PTI has not been able to spare a constituency for each electable that joined it and now it has to deal with an army of disgruntled politicians either leaving or creating trouble.

The PTI’s second strategy revolves around stirring sectarian hatred and tarring the PML-N with blasphemy accusations. In 2013, Imran Khan benefitted from the softer attitude towards it from the TTP which had made it impossible for his opponents, particularly the ANP, to contest elections in KP. This time around, it appears, the party wants to gain the same advantage in Punjab. This is indeed the most dangerous game in town.

Imran Khan mainstreamed the Taliban’s arguments for a decade; it seems now he intends to mainstream Barelvi extremism. Punjab has been a sectarian battleground for decades; Imran Khan has a good chance of taking this sectarian hatred to new levels with or without getting the intended electoral gains.

This tactic is also linked to another strategy that Imran Khan has followed from the beginning – dehumanizing his political opponents in the eyes of his core followers. After a political opponent is dehumanised, they can be blamed of any crime under the sun. This dehumanisation is apparent from the attitude of Imran Khan’s core followers to the health problems of Mohtarma Kalsoom Nawaz.

Such dehumanisation is also a perfect formula for inciting violence. We may not be able to make many gains in terms of state-building, nation-building and the development of democracy through the 2018 elections. On the contrary, they may leave us battered, bruised and divided.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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