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End of the electables?

Published May 19, 2013 10:47am


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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


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Comments (21) Closed

Em Moosa May 19, 2013 10:27pm

Do you not think that we are standing again at square one after the recently concluded elections or in the other words selection ? What the purpose has solved for this billion dollars campaign when one was threatening in such a uncivilised language that "balla sharifon ki pheti lagayega" and the other was shouting that "giyarah mai ko sher dharega" and in the middle of this the real life of a hungry and thirsty tiger lost who was brought in the jalsas. Poor animal, What a shame. After this controversial and mother of all past rigged elections of Pakistani history which was very well designed by certain powerful quarters for the selection of talibaan favorite "politician", it is very clear that the next government will not last even for one year because beimaani ke paon nahin hote aur us ke zarye haasil ki hui kaamyabi ki lambi umar bhi nahin hoti" Just wait and watch. I am afraid the country will suffer again. I see very bleak future of Pakistan.

mohammad shafique May 19, 2013 05:30pm
oh,really !
Parvez May 19, 2013 09:08am
What is good about reading you is that you give a deeper nuanced view of the picture and not the usual humdrum.
EmMoosa May 19, 2013 06:20pm
Is this mandate genuine?
wak May 19, 2013 09:42am
totally agree. the adult franchise is finally becoming an "adult" and now its to the parties to treat them as one..however what you said explained what happened in punjab, but what about sind?
excalibur May 19, 2013 07:02am
Cyril I always mistook you for someone who could see through the fluff ! I now stand corrected It is clear that you are also blinded by the opacity of this worst ever election stunts foisted upon the nation by the collusion of vested interests all in the name of our brand of dyslexic democracy ? Pathetic
Emm May 19, 2013 05:29am
As usual Mr. Almeida analyzes the situation well and gleans trends which appear to be logical. I would say further that other than PTI none of the other national parties have focused on party manifestos and ideology in their quest for votes and election. This is a good beginning for PTI and with the populace moving towards ideology based politics, PTI will do much better next time. Its biggest strength is its leadership, its intellectual capital and a growing realization of the populace that patronage, biradari and patwari system will just not be enough for them and for the country. It's the much awaited rise of national politics.
umer May 19, 2013 06:24am
too much patriotism is our problem. Why should we consider 'sub se pehle pakistan' when the state humiliates us at every step. Pakistanis have to assert their rights as individuals.We have sacrificed too much and for too long for Pakistan. It is time we receive something in return.
Mystic May 19, 2013 06:22am
I'm sorry, but 'electables' is a pre-partition concept, not new. All India Muslim League had a fair share of them at that time.
bilal May 19, 2013 06:14am
Dear author What happened to your pre-poll prediction of a surprise from PTI. Too much analysis leads to paralysis.
Salman Yusuf May 19, 2013 06:57pm
I think Mr. Almeida has gotten it completely wrong in Punjab and Sindh. In Punjab, it was the "electables" of PMLN who won and in Sindh, the 'electable' of PPPP. In Karachi/ hyderabad, the election to put it mildly was highly questionable and utter failure of the election commission. In simple words, traditional politics won while the so called new politics of PTI/ Imran Khan failed.
Omar Haroon May 20, 2013 01:16pm
Interesting take on the elections though I can't say I fully agree with your take on it. I'd say, that KPK is perhaps the only province that seems to embody the end of the electables.
simlpysaints May 19, 2013 01:05pm
Electables are still a reality as seen in the election results, though I do agree that party politics has made them less effective. PML-Ns embrace of electables paid off though the strong mandate they received diluted their importance. This should come as a relief to the party. Moreover, the devil lies in the detail. Electables seem to have been rejected mostly from non-urban areas. Biradari politics still lives, and was amply seem in Sind. We still have ways to go to make electables insignificant.
Sarahh May 19, 2013 01:07pm
Can we call N-League really a "political party" which has never had a genuine internal party elections and is all centred around the persona of Sharif family? Why everyone who had ever dissented or left Sharifs couldn't get through or had a very very hard time? Has the Pakistani electorate really become a genius? ohh perhaps we forgot to talk about the civil and police administrations and chosen political families pampered by N-League in the past two decades in Punjab?
Ahmed May 19, 2013 01:53pm
I learnt something by reading this article even though I had been following these elections with close interest for the past month.
Ahmed May 19, 2013 01:54pm
I hope you are not as confused as your letter makes you seem.
Amjad Wyne May 20, 2013 02:48am
Other parties are even more centered around individuals - one of the parties is centered around not just individuals but dead individuals. Hope this changes.
BRR May 19, 2013 03:57pm
slogans and propaganda only fool people sometimes, but not forever.
BRR May 19, 2013 03:58pm
Interesting take.
Qamar May 19, 2013 11:45am
Its not so in punjab. Independents in Punjab Assembly have more seats than PTI. How do you see that? Its so because PML-N was able to give tickets to mostly electables and people still voted for them. In my constituency NA-106, the guy who won on PML-N ticket would have won independently as well. But one thing is for sure, people rejected PPP out rightly and without a second though. No wonder this is why Qamar Kaira lost here so badly.
NASAH (USA) May 19, 2013 03:49pm
With brothers Sharif at the helm of the PML(N) affairs how can you say it was pure party based politics not personality cult. Pakistan politics will never rise beyond personality and family cults - in fact that the world's trend now a days -- that is after Sindbad the Son of Sindbad.