The ANP recently suspended the membership of two of its stalwarts– Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar – for violating party discipline. Although the party did not specify the charges against Khattak and Gohar, it is widely believed that the party leadership was not happy with their vocal support for civil rights endeavours.
This development indicates the gradual capitulation of political parties to rising non-democratic pressure at a particularly difficult time for democracy in the country. The once-vibrant media is in complete disarray and under increasing control. Political parties, at least a few if not all, appear willing to sacrifice democratic ideals in pursuit of short-term goals.
On the other hand, this development indicates a deeper existential crisis faced by the ANP. This crisis is mainly a result of the party’s inability to adapt to two major structural (institutional and sociological) changes that have taken place in Pakistan.
The first is the institutional change introduced by the adoption of the 18th Amendment. Devolution of powers to the provinces and constitutional protection to the 7th NFC Award were arguably the most important features of the 18th Amendment as far as centre-province relations were concerned. The ANP, which had been striving for provincial autonomy, identity recognition and fair resource distribution since its existence as NAP, played a key role in them. These developments, therefore, marked the pinnacle of political achievement for the ANP.
At the height of its political achievements, the ANP began to confront a new challenge: the risk of decreased political relevance after having achieved defining political objectives. The abrupt resolution (on paper) of policy issues that had long provided the basis for the ANP’s identity politics appeased its voters, leading many of them to consider voting on grounds beyond identity issues. In other words, the party began to lose its niche and the associated support base. Its voters became more susceptible to cooptation by mainstream parties, especially those emphasising service delivery and improved governance as opposed to identity politics. Scholars have noted the appeasement effect of decentralisation on the support base of ethno-regional parties.
The second major change that the ANP and other political parties have been unable to reconcile with is the steady growth in the urban middle-class population in Pakistan over the last couple of decades. This demographic change in an era of unprecedented digital connectivity has affected the fortunes of political parties in profound and diverse ways.
While this urban middle class is by no means unified and homogeneous in terms of ethical and ideological orientation and policy preferences, its members certainly share some common characteristics, including aspirations for upward mobility in both the economic and political sense. Moreover, urbanisation has weakened their ties to traditional social networks such as family, caste or tribe, implying that they are not part of the deeply-entrenched patronage networks that serve as principal vehicles for social service delivery. They, therefore, tend to favour broad-based improvements in service delivery.
The effect of this demographic shift on a political party depends primarily on the class and regional composition of a party’s core support base. In other words, parties that draw their core support from urban middle classes are more likely to be affected, for better or worse. The ANP and the PTI are classic examples of such parties, and draw their core support from the semi-urban and urban educated and professional class. In the case of the ANP, the majority of its core supporters are third and fourth generation Khudai Khidmatgars and educated Pashtun youth were exposed to identity politics in urban centres like Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi.
The ANP’s failure to vertically expand its class base over the years made it very dependent on the educated middle and upper-middle classes. This narrow support base has come under strain with the increase in the size of the young, urban and educated population. The ANP is under pressure from this growing demographic to cede more space to young voices within the party and to improve its poor public perception regarding service delivery. In contrast, the PTI has managed to win the support of this group, owing largely to its emphasis on a non-ideological and service delivery-centric political agenda. Moreover, the PTI’s vocal stance on certain issues pertaining to centre-province relations has helped it co-opt the ANP’s ownership of some issues.
PkMAP, the Pashtun nationalist party in Balochistan which also draws its core support from the semi-urban and urban educated class, has also been affected by the demographic shift and enhanced importance of service delivery. For instance, the number of people in Quetta city who voted for PkMAP approximately halved from 49,500 in 2013 to 28,000 in 2018. In contrast, the total votes for the PTI more than doubled during the same period. PkMAP’s traditional rival – the JUI-F – only saw a minor increase in its total votes between 2013 and 2018. That the JUI-F contested the 2018 elections from the platform of the MMA explains the slight increase in its vote share in 2018. The dramatic rise in the PTI’s vote bank can only be attributed to the sharp decline in PkMAP’s vote. It can be argued that at least half of the people who voted for the PTI in 2018 were PkMAP voters in 2013. This makes more sense when one realises that the PTI had fielded mostly Pashtun candidates in Quetta.
So, while these institutional and socio-economic changes pose a serious challenge to both parties, the threat faced by PkMAP is not as severe as that faced by the ANP. Unlike the ANP, PkMAP hasn’t lost its niche in the wake of the 18th Amendment. PkMAP’s niche is anchored in competition with the Baloch ethnic group and advocacy for civilian supremacy – both of which continue to be burning issues.
In order to survive, the ANP must reinvent itself politically and strive towards expanding its class base both vertically and horizontally. To achieve this goal, the ANP not only requires the likes of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar more than ever but also needs to get rid of the opportunists within its ranks. It needs to give genuine and substantial space to young voices who truly represent the sentiments of the public.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.
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