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End of the electables?

May 19, 2013


Former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif waves to supporters after his party victory in general election in Lahore on May 11, 2013.— File Photo by AFP
Former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif waves to supporters after his party victory in general election in Lahore on May 11, 2013.— File Photo by AFP

HURRAH for democracy. Not because of who won, but what won. Parties won.

Not ugly local politics, not dharrabandi, not thana-kutcheri, not the candidate who can ride his local network of support to victory on any ticket, in any election. Parties won.

N-League in Punjab, PTI in KP, PPP in Sindh. And had the nationalists in Balochistan tried to fight a tougher fight than the talk they talked, Balochistan too could have joined the club.

For the first time in a generation, arguably two, Pakistan has begun to reject the politics of Zia — an apolitical kind of politics in which people voted for local representatives, for electables, not parties.

Injected into the system by Ayub, it accelerated in the late ’70s with Zia’s local government elections and culminated in 1985’s party-less elections — a kind of politics where you went into the polling booth holding your nose instead of a party flag.

The whole point of Zia’s anti-politics was to make politics undesirable — a void to be filled by religion, technocrats and straw men masquerading as politicians. The real politician was everyone’s favourite Aunt Sally, an under-siege figure on whom contempt and scorn was heaped.

Zia’s anti-politics was doubly pernicious because it pushed back against the ZAB-inspired political awakening of the ’60s, ensuring that party platforms were a distant consideration of the voter.

Instead, the voter’s focus was returned to the parochial: what his constituency politician could do for him and how well his representative was plugged into the state to help get the voter what he needed — the ugly politics of thana-kutcheri, biraderism and patronage.

The first glimpses of the voter’s rejection of anti-politics came in the 2008 election when Musharraf’s cabinet was scattered like ninepins: a very deliberate rebuke by the electorate of Musharraf policies expressed through the systematic rejection of strong Q-League candidates who had worked the levers of patronage hard to try and keep voters happy. But the BB assassination factor made it difficult to know what part was emotion and what part savvy, evolved voting.

This time round it’s a lot clearer.

The annihilation of the PPP in Punjab was the voter saying thanks but no thanks to the party’s ugly politics of impoverishment. Here, take a thousand rupees a month and be grateful, the PPP essentially said to the voter. On May 11, the voter shot back: thanks for the pocket change but let’s talk about inflation, joblessness, electricity and gas.

So far, so good — disastrous incumbency should be punished heavily.

It’s the other half of the voter’s response, though, that is especially interesting.

Instead of lapsing back into the politics of patronage, going local and flocking to the constituency politician, the electable, who can offer some protection against the state and economic winds, the voter took a leap of faith — towards one party. The PPP’s failures were not a failure of politics, the voter has said, they were the failures of a party.

Had the voter judged the PPP’s failures to be a failure of politics, Punjab could have split between the N-League, PTI and the detritus of the PML-Q and PPP — for each of the smaller parties had enough electables to squeeze out a dozen or two seats.

Electables, the very embodiment of anti-politics, are not done yet, as more than a handful of independents elected from Punjab suggests. But they do appear to be a dying breed.

And the quicker they disappear, the stronger will democracy be, for political mercenaries as public representatives, always hunting for the best deal, the best ticket, and always trying to manipulate power structures at the local level to keep voters beholden to them — that is the very essence of anti-politics.

But to guarantee extinction of the electables, the voter can only do so much — ultimately, it’s down to the parties themselves.

Deliberately targeting Musharraf’s ministers in 2008; picking off PPP heavyweights outside Sindh in 2013 while surging towards the N-League in Punjab and PTI in KP — the electorate has expressed its preference for stable party politics.

Unhappily, the parties themselves have yet to learn such bravery.

The PTI tried hardest but Imran eventually conceded too much — though, because many of the ugliest concessions to electables were in Punjab, the success in KP can still be cast somewhat as a rejection of old-school politics.

The PML-N, spoiled for choice in the end, made some unpleasant, and unnecessary, decisions. Akhtar Rasool is a name that has left many squeamish, he being the ultimate embodiment of an opportunist politician.

A charitable explanation for the PML-N flinging its doors open to electables could be that many were only returning to the party fold, having been broken by Musharraf and the Chaudhrys and carted off to the PML-Q.

N-Leaguers will also leap to point out that the Q-League Likeminded faction and the unification bloc in the last Punjab Assembly were ultimately shafted by the party when tickets were handed out.

But in the end, the N-League did give significant weightage to personal electability instead of focusing on a loyal party cadre that, whether individually weak or strong, could be carried to victory by a wave of support for the PML-N.

Why? Most obviously: the party was looking over its shoulders at the PTI.

Once elected, electables demand their pound of flesh — through state contracts, through the police, through land appropriation, through government ministries and departments.

After all, the electable promised his voter and his political network some of the spoils and victory means having to deliver on at least some of those promises.

Though, because the N-League’s victory in Punjab was so commanding, the distortionary effect of electables will be tempered this time.

The thing is, voters appear ready for so much more — to bury the politics of electables for the proper politics of parties. Will the parties themselves catch up? We have five years to find out.

The writer is a member of staff. Twitter: @cyalm