Inflation will figure prominently among the issues raised in the forthcoming election campaigns
lectorates in Pakistan have traditionally been influenced by factors like candidature, biraderi, factionalism and political parties. These factors have played a vital role in shaping public opinion and motivating voters. Class, ideology and issues of public importance have hardly been central in influencing political choices of most people. Some political commentators hold that only two elections in the history of the region – in 1945-6 and 1970 – were contested on the basis of ideologies. In the former, the Muslim electorates voted overwhelmingly in favour of creation of Pakistan – a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. In the latter, a majority of voters in present day Pakistan, voted for Islamic socialism of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Some political analysts predict that the next general elections, due later this year, will be contested on the basis of current issues, if not ideology. To them, corruption, inflation and political love-hate will be the determining factors influencing the electorate’s choices. The argument holds water since Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), has been extremely successful in building a narrative on these issues. Subsequently, he has effectively motivated, mobilised and charged a major chunk of voters.
Historical analysis suggests that this phenomenon – issue-based politics or election campaigns surrounding issues – is not new to electoral or political history of Pakistan. During the 1990s, four democratically elected governments were sent packing. The reasons cited most notably were poor economic performance, corruption and incompetence. Thus, the political rivals had to build their narratives and run their campaigns around these issues.
Imran Khan’s 2018 campaign also relied on a promise to make the country’s economy work for the poor by ending corruption and providing employment. However, four years later, inflation was recorded the highest in South Asia; citizens struggled to make ends meet; and prices of essential goods had risen to unprecedented levels. In January 2022, the country’s consumer price index rose to 13 percent while the sensitive price index, which includes the prices of essential food items, was recorded at 15 percent, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. As a result of this inflation, middle-class poverty was on the rise, squeezing the average wage earner and eroding standards of living.
Skyrocketing inflation had not only eroded public support for Khan but also given the political opposition a window of opportunity to call for his resignation. Furthermore, tensions with Pakistan’s powerful military over the appointment of a new intelligence chief weakened the prime minister’s political position. The political opposition had organised protests aiming to oust the cricket star-turned-politician from power. The PPP had organised a Mehngai March from Karachi to Islamabad, and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an anti-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) alliance, had organised a rally. Both the PPP and the PDM had built their narratives and created political rhetoric around inflation and price hike.
Ultimately, Imran Khan was ousted from power through a no-confidence vote in April 2022 by the parliamentary opposition, which had won the support of a dozen defectors from Khan’s PTI, who remained dissatisfied with his economic (mis)management. Thus, Khan’s ouster was most likely a result of two reasons: tensions with Pakistan’s powerful military and skyrocketing inflation.
Has the PDM-led federal government been successful in coping with skyrocketing inflation and soaring price hike? No. Things have gone from bad to worse. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is reluctant to sign a deal. The consumer price inflation has jumped from 13 percent in March 2022 to record 35 percent in March 2023, since having been recorded on a year-on-year basis from the 1970s. The US dollar has risen from around Rs 180 in March 2022 to Rs 288 in April 2023. The prices of oil and gas have almost doubled over the last one year i.e., from April 2022 to April 2023. The prices of essential food items in March 2023 have been recorded as the highest in fifty years. These numbers reflect an extremely poor economic performance.
Will this worst economic performance – skyrocketing inflation and soaring prices – influence people’s political choices? Looking at the history of elections and voting behaviour in the country, it is difficult to say definitively. It will also depend on how Imran Khan builds and sells his narrative.
Imran Khan is considered one of the best examples of narrative building and rhetoric creation in the history of Pakistan. He has effectively alleged, then defended and even manipulated his ouster as a “foreign” (US) conspiracy. He has been successful also in building a narrative and creating a rhetoric that the “corrupt and imported government” of the PDM-alliance cannot drive Pakistan on the path of progress and development. In fact, he has been warning that the government will push the country further into a mess since those running the government were “looters” and “corrupt” people. On this account, he has effectively motivated, mobilised, and charged a major chunk of voters. He has been organising large rallies and huge gatherings not only to gather mass support and charge his voters but also to mount pressure on his opponents.
A weak economy will, most likely, influence people’s political choices particularly that of the middle and poor classes. Due to the rise in poverty and deteriorating standards of living, the PTI will aim to influence, motivate and mobilise through a rhetoric around inflation. A majority of PTI supporters and some who earlier been opposed to it have already bought the idea that the economy was better under Imran Khan. As a result, a political tilt in favour of the PTI is visible. In addition to the economic performance of the PDM, anger will likely motivate many voters. Many voters believe Khan’s claim that he was ousted and the PDM government was “installed” through a foreign conspiracy. A frustrated and apparently failed PDM government is also seen victimising Khan by registering flimsy cases against him and ‘attacking’ his house using law enforcement agencies.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @MazharGondal87