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September 17, 2015



Is all politics local?

‘All politics is local’ – this phrase, borrowed from American politics, is as relevant to them as us. With the current electoral season of the third tier of governance in the two major and politically sensitised provinces, Sindh and Punjab, this phrase fits well.
As the much delayed local bodies elections in both major provinces are around the corner, and clandestine political reconciliation between key political forces gains speed, the PML-N, PPP and MQM seem to be at odds with each other. The fourth force, the PTI, was already in a state of agitation.
This makes a matching equation politically, before a marathon electoral competition in the weeks to come, as the ground for local politics and representation is all set in both provinces, through a phase-wise elections. The preliminary processing has started. All excuses for rescheduling and postponing by both parties and provincial governments have at last been exhausted by the Supreme Court.
Historically, both the PPP and PML-N have been running away from local government, as with the end of the second tenure of the current local governance structure in 2009, there have been no such elections in their provinces. We continued to hear about repeated amendments in local governance law and the whole exercise was made controversial and delayed many a time.
With the local bodies elections, the political and structural reality of local democracies would become possible; the PML-N and the PPP, who have always avoided this tier, have always labelled it as a dictatorial legacy. Undoubtedly, throughout the country’s history of over six decades, three military takeovers have birthed and nurtured local governance – from basic democracies to local governments. That doesn’t mean that no popular political force should own and improvise local governments’ structure and efficacy as a viable option to tackle issues locally.
This third and lowest tier of governance has recently been made possible in

both smaller provinces, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This resulted in some pressure on both Sindh and Punjab to meet the political and structural challenge. The ruling parties in both these provinces secretly slip and take refuge within their constituencies; being old players of this game they know quite well that all politics is local.
However, the third force – the PTI – is edging them at the national level in terms of popularity but it relatively lacks the art of electoral wisdom locally. The fourth force, the MQM, is under siege and facing the worst ever fencing in the name of the Karachi Operation. Therefore, the leadership of all four major players of late sounds up against each other, ending long political equations as everyone needs a bigger share for his party and a larger role nationally.
Looking at the results of all by-elections held in Punjab over the last two years, it is the PTI that is challenging the PML-N; the PPP was positioned after them, with votes just in the few thousands. It shows that the PPP in Punjab has, for the time being, turned into a political blunder due to the politics of conformity and callousness conducted by its leadership in the aftermath of the loss of the charismatic Benazir Bhutto. Both Bilawal and Zardari visit Lahore like migratory birds and can’t even stay a week to mobilise the masses and keep their workers spirited.
As a political alternative, the PTI has emerged as a strong force in Punjab, outsmarting the PPP, including challenging the Takht-e-Lahore of the PML-N. The traditional space for independent candidates on the lines of lineage and other local realties and priorities may also occupy significant numbers in the upcoming elections; they definitely would club with the ruling party in the province.
Therefore, in contrast to earlier reports, the PTI is ruling out any possibility of an alliance with the PPP and other forces. So the PPP is left with no any option except to challenge not only the Sharifs at their political fort, but also control the damage arising out of the rising popularity of the PTI, which is damaging the PPP more than its traditional rival, the PML-N, in its already eroded electoral base across Punjab.
The tirade by the PTI against both is equally redirected in the upcoming local elections and is going to affect the PPP more than the PML-N, since the PPP during the last two years has failed to offer any viable and sustainable option to its voters. Also, the leadership gap and differences within its Punjab chapter, mainly on the candidature of provincial president Manzoor Wattoo, are clear. Wattoo has badly failed to mainstream the PPP in Punjab, and a new popular political alternative has almost replaced the PPP in Punjab.
The political scenario in Sindh is also critically changed, with the tightening of Karachi and the corruption operation. The PTI doesn’t seem to be making any visible inroads in the province, despite repeated visits and promises by its leadership to concentrate more on Sindh. However, there is widening space for the PTI to gain and maximise its numbers with the support of the urban electorate, since the MQM is on the run.
Resultantly, the leadership crisis within the MQM has deepened, its activities put on hold.
To balance the threat, the MQM’s resignations from assemblies were used as a tool to compromise and deescalate the dangers at its head. This tool is somewhat neutralised, and its resignations are stuck between structural processing for acceptance and unstructured political bargain, which no political force can offer them.
The PPP government in Sindh is in hot waters at the hands of three federal institutions – Rangers, NAB and FIA. Every other day, one hears mega damning scandals. The PPP’s traditional vote in rural Sindh is in a state of shock, as politically they don’t have any other electoral option, except traditional anti-PPP feudal individuals, who also lack credibility.
This puts Sindh in a state of paralysis administratively and politically. Its provincial government is remote-controlled and is caught between federal agencies and party clutches. The ruling party’s de-facto chairman, Asif Zardari, himself is also facing a crisis after his speech almost three months back in which he had asked law-enforcement not to cross red lines. Since then, he has been isolated politically, and resorted to opt almost for self-exile.
In this state of crisis, two major provinces of the country are going to elect their lowest governance tier. Out of the four top political leaders, two are out of the country, one is at the PM House and the last is at Bani Gala.
They are all encouraging their second and third-tiered leaderships to serve as mere shuttles. That all politics is local doesn’t mean that all players are moved, shaken and equally shrunken and dumped locally.
The writer is an anthropologist and freelance analyst based in Islamabad.
Email: [email protected]