PESHAWAR: For politicians in most countries, switching parties is a once-in-a-career move made only after careful thought. But in Pakistan, changing sides to gain advantage is standard practice.
Since entering politics in 1996, Arbab Khizer Hayat has switched his party allegiance 14 times, and he is far from alone. Dozens of others have done so and as the May 11 general election approaches, the trend is increasing.
The hallway of Hayat's huge mansion in the northwestern city of Peshawar is adorned with pictures of him with former president Ghulam Ishaq. And former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. And former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Hayat, a member of a landowning family with a long history in politics, has gone from the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former cricketer Imran Khan to Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
He has managed to stick with the PML-N, currently favourites for the election, for the past two years.
“When I went back to the PML-N, Nawaz rang me and joked: 'How long are you staying with us this time?'” said Hayat, 38, with an infectious grin.
The phenomenon of politicians jumping ship is so familiar that Pakistanis have a nickname for them — “lota”, the Urdu word for a round-bottomed water jug that can rock in all directions without falling over.
Hayat is quite candid about his changeability.
“Politics is not about ideas, but about power. When politicians see a party becoming popular they want to join it,” he said.
In Pakistan's stratified, semi-feudal society, patronage and kinship play a huge role and dominate over ideology in politics.
Candidates choose the banner under which they have the best chance of being elected, while parties court powerful individuals in areas where the person's name and influence can secure more votes than any party.
“We have two types of politicians. Half are loyal to parties, so if they are right wing or progressive, left wing, they are very loyal to the ideology, but the other half is opportunist,” said analyst Raza Rumi.
“Rich people who makes lots of money, people who own land or who are influential, they choose the party, a ticket where they are likely to win.” This back-and-forth movement between parties has accelerated in recent weeks as the party leaderships hand out electoral “tickets”, naming their candidates for the national assembly, the lower house of parliament.
Nabeel Gabol, elected to the assembly in the troubled Lyari neighbourhood of Karachi, switched to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the southern metropolis' dominant party, shortly before parliament dissolved in March.
He will stand for both Lyari and an MQM seat in May. It is common for politicians in Pakistan to contest multiple seats. There have also been moves by some MPs from the outgoing PPP to join the PML-N as its stock has risen.
“We had a lot of expectations that the PPP will be able to address the problems being faced by Balochistan but despite our repeated requests they did not take it seriously,” said Lashkari Raisani, an MP from southwestern Balochistan province who switched from the PPP to PML-N last month.
According to a recent Gallup poll, PML-N will win the most number of seats at the ballot box next month, but like the PPP in 2008, not enough to secure an outright majority.
“In a country where it's sometimes hard to trust opinion polls, the 'lotas' are a good indicator of trends,” a Western diplomat said.
In this game of electoral musical chairs, those who cannot get their hands on a ticket from one of the big parties run as independents or try to sidle up to one of the emerging parties such as PTI.
Arbab is sitting out the election this time as he says he does not have the money to pay campaign expenses, salaries, media advertising and food for meetings. But he hopes to become a political adviser if his party is elected.
“It's my last party, I won't leave and I'll even stand in elections for them next time,” he said, hoping to have finally picked the right side.