The political polarisation has squeezed out ideology from electoral politics
n the third decade of the 21st Century Pakistan, the political rhetoric has turned out to be so confused that it has pushed the electorate into a maze of indecisiveness, political alignment and inconclusiveness of the electoral rhetoric. The political narratives have become murky and devoid of ideological content. The recent political engineering and electoral polarisation has nearly eliminated the ideology factor in electoral politics. To properly contextualise the recent loss of ideology and clarity of narratives in the political and electoral landscape of Pakistan, it is necessary to take a look at the previous four electoral cycles i.e., 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2018.
The 2002 elections were held by Gen Pervez Musharraf in a controlled mechanism to create a king’s party – a pattern common in Pakistan during dictatorial regimes – to gain legitimacy and, hence, longevity of rule. The military takeover, events of 9/11 and a surge of rightist and militant elements in areas bordering with Afghanistan provided the backdrop to these elections. Assertion of an Islamic identity could pay high dividends in such an environment. The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) used religious symbolism and anti-American rhetoric and was able to form provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. It also won some other important seats: for instance, Mian Aslam’s constituency in Islamabad. On the other hand, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (the king’s party) successfully sold the narrative of a progressive Pakistan with enlightened moderation and economic development. However, arguably, the largest section of PML-Q comprised members who were either enticed or intimidated to join establishment’s favourite party.
The impact of events surrounding 9/11 had dissipated by 2008 except in terms of religious extremism that continued to play its role. This time, the divide of pro/ anti-democracy rhetoric played an important part due to the sacking of the apex judiciary and the lawyers’ movement that followed to rescue rule of law and democracy in Pakistan. The movement gained momentum with the support of various sections of civil society and the students. It successfully mobilised the urban middle class as pro-democracy and in support of the rule of law. A further impetus was provided by the recently introduced social media and private TV channels.
The PML-Q tried to use the economic development card in the 2008 elections but could not do so successfully because of an economic meltdown and increase in electricity load shedding. The handling of the Lal Masjid operation also damaged the position of the PML-Q while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz observed tactical silence on the issue. As elections approached, pro-democracy forces generally gained electoral strength on the demand that Musharraf shed his uniform. The Pakistan Peoples Party particularly gained sympathy vote in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, resulting in stunning victories for many candidates. For example, the victory of Imtiaz Safdar Warraich from Gujranwala was a surprise for many commentators. The party gained a landslide victory in Sindh.
In the 2013 elections, the PPP again tried to use the pro-democracy narrative but the real issues of poor governance, prolonged electricity load shedding and inflation brought it doom. On the other hand, the PML-N used the Punjab performance rhetoric; took credit for building motorways and Metros bus service; and promised to end load shedding. Andhera mukao (end the darkness/ load shedding) was a very important slogan raised frequently by the PML-N. Another discernable political and electoral entity in the 2013 elections was the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf that generally maintained a political narrative of anti-corruption and need for accountability. It bracketed nearly all the mainstream pro-democracy forces of the time as corrupt political elements. The PTI used electioneering slogans of Saaf chalee, shaffaf chalee (clean it goes) but did not register substantial electoral victories except in the KP where it formed the provincial government. The recently restored Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary-led apex judiciary was perceived to have a soft corner towards PML-N because of its role in restoration of the judges. The PML-N was successful in gaining enough electoral majority to form governments in the Centre and the Punjab. Many analysts say that its performance in the province during 2008-13 contributed a lot to its electoral position.
The PML-N tried to build a momentum from the very start to deliver performance for the 2018 elections. But the allegedly establishment-supported sit-ins by the PTI and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, the 2017 Panama Papers episode, and the July 2017 disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister hindered its momentum. However, it did reasonably well in terms of completing large economic and infrastructure projects along with the CPEC and in eradicating load shedding. In the elections of 2018, the PML-N tried to ride the narratives of victimhood of the aforementioned factors, anti-establishment rhetoric and pro-development manifesto. Vote ko izzat doe (respect the vote) was its leading slogan. This time the electronic media was particularly perceived to draw a charge sheet for pro-democracy forces and aligned with the PTI. Extensive coverage was provided to the mainstream leadership of the PTI, especially to Imran Khan. The PTI was also perceived to be supported by establishment and the judiciary. However, Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of bringing the element of resistance in the Punjab and anti-establishment rhetoric provided reasonable electoral dividends. But the PTI was able to form the federal government in a broad coalition as well as in the Punjab and the KP. There was a coalition government in Balochistan while the PPP retained its supremacy in Sindh.
Having formed governments, the PTI could not effectively respond to the governance challenges. Imran Khan then started the rhetoric of Riasat-i-Madina and Islamophobia as religious symbolism to fill the performance gap. He could not maintain a momentum for accountability being himself flanked by many corrupt sections of the society and the state. After being ousted from power, Khan has used the rhetoric of anti-corruption, anti-establishment anti-Americanism, pro-Islam as well as victimhood for being ousted – all in order of shifting priorities. The PML-N led coalition of the PDM, however, has lost its narrative due to poor economic management and record high inflation. It is unable to play the pro-democracy card due to its apparent avoidance of elections, switch of political loyalties and, allegedly, being brought in with the support of the establishment.
The victimhood card is being revived by PML-N with an apprehension of a few judges’ perceived support to the PTI. But this may not add to the vote bank. The political and electoral rhetoric has shifted to hatred and become personality oriented. The polarised narratives and rhetoric have caused the superior courts, the media, the military and the election commission to be perceived as partial. The camps are identifiable in media outlets and many journalists covering the courts claim to be able to predict the outcomes of judicial hearings on the basis of formation of benches. Consequently, the state institutions meant for conflict resolution have been rendered controversial.
The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @AbrarZahoor1