Saturday April 20, 2024

Party-voters linkage

By Foqia Sadiq Khan
January 24, 2021

Politicians’ teams consisting of local level politicians and party workers on the ground level work as 'political machines', and the way these political teams interact with voters has implications for the local voices being heard in the decision-making process.

These 'political machines' are driven by a single higher-level politician, a family, or a small group of politicians who organize votes for themselves and their parties through this contact. Today we are going to refer to Liaqat et al's work on 'Who Do Politicians Talk To' in the edited volume on 'Pakistan’s Political Parties'.

These political machines work as “brokers” at the local level. Voters conceptualize political parties through their interaction with the voters and they distribute patronage to voters in a non-programmatic and conditional manner while ensuring that they get their votes for the higher-level politicians in return. These brokers are “imperfect agents” as their activities are not directly monitored by the higher-level politicians.

The reason these political machines are needed is because the size of the National Assembly constituency is very big. The average National Assembly seat delimited for the 2018 general elections in Lahore had more than 750,000 people. With such a large size of constituencies, there is a need for intermediaries to collect and transmit the information from the local to the higher level and vice versa.

According to the authors, this operation consists of “a mixture of elected local ‘lower-tier’ politicians and unelected party workers who expend considerable time and effort, both during elections and outside of election campaigns, maintaining contact with citizens. These machines are organized by ‘higher-tier’ politicians competing for higher office … and their family members. The machines’ most important task is to garner votes for higher-tier politicians during general elections”.

Door-to-door campaigns, voters making an effort to access members of political machines outside the election season, and politicians knowing the voters personally are the three different types of typologies through which the research maps the interaction between local politicians and citizens.

Through voter surveys, the authors find out that politicians do not target undecided voters more than other voters. Politicians generally focus on men and illiterate voters and those who are more likely to participate in political activities. In other words, political parties invest their energies in the types of voters who are going to come out and vote for them on election day.

There is a gender bias as the political machines are much less likely to contact women voters compared to male voters and this is due to the “structural and norm-based constraints on female political participation”. However, the bias is not only anti-women, it is also anti-poor.

Generally, the literature on political parties and voters is driven around the elections and the period shortly before that. However, it is also important to study the dynamics of voter-party linkages outside the election cycle. One such research shows that party workers' presence outside the election cycle is linked with the outcomes of service delivery. However, there is a need to broadly understand the party-voter interactions outside the election cycle more deeply where the voter can initiate access to party machinery rather than being its recipient only.

There is also a need to study voter behaviours and attitudes at the micro-level as well as doing more work on voter-party interaction in the urban areas given the rapid urbanization in the country. According to the research, in urban Punjab, these political machines transmit demands and preferences of voters upward to the higher-level politicians along with transmitting campaign promises, clientelistic exchanges and programmatic vision downward to the voters. These political machines work at the provincial or National Assembly constituency level and every candidate running for these higher levels puts together his/her political teams at the local level.

This interaction between the higher-level politician and local politician is not only important for the success of higher-level politicians but also for the chances of local candidates winning the union council elections as voters tend to vote for those local politicians in the local government elections who are perceived to be better connected with the higher-level politicians. These connections make the politics of patronage and clientelism more effective for them.

Higher-level politicians are dependent on their political machines not only for the mobilization of voters for election purposes but also for the implementation of developmental work in their constituencies. There is also local level competition between party workers, and higher level politicians may need to manage this competition for the stability of functioning of their political machines.

Political contact with voters is manifested in varied ways. Though the immediate reason for this contact may be electoral campaigns and addressal of service delivery issues, this contact is the primary way the demands and preferences of citizens are transmitted. Those influential locals who are close to politicians have different markers than the average voter. Therefore, there is a need that this contact is expanded and more vulnerable and women are included in it than they are presently.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.