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Changing trends

May 21, 2013

POLITICAL parties differ in a variety of ways, eg in their ideology, their leadership’s socio-economic background and their national or ethnic focus.

The types of parties representing a region reflect its socio-economic characteristics. Such regional analysis for the 2013 elections helps in better understanding today’s Pakistan.

Around 25pc of National Assembly seats went to nine supposedly liberal parties (PPP, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Balochistan nationalists, etc.) while 75pc-plus went to 10 parties with conservative leanings (PML-N, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, religious parties, etc.). ‘Liberal’ parties had won 50pc of these seats in 2008, suggesting huge ideological shifts in just five years.

However, Pakistanis prefer practical issues over ideology while ideological differences between larger parties have narrowed. Thus, while Pakistanis are shifting rightwards socially, this 25pc-plus drop reflects other important reasons too.

Regional analysis helps understand this puzzle. ‘Liberals’ won 80pc-plus of the combined national seats of Sindh and Balochistan. Conversely, conservatives won 90pc-plus of the combined national seats of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata and Islamabad. This suggests a huge ideological divide geographically.

Northern (Punjab, KP etc) Pakistan is arguably more socially conservative. But differences in regional political power better explain this divide. Most ‘liberal’ parties are ethnic parties. Even the PPP now represents Sindhi grievances.

Southern (in Sindh and Balochistan) ethnic groups enjoy less power and harbour ethnic grievances. Their voting preferences are less volatile as voters remain linked strongly to the parties representing their ethnic grievances despite their managerial weaknesses. Given the absence in practical terms of inclusive national parties, voters in the south supported ‘liberals’ mainly for their ethnic politics.

Conversely, the larger northern ethnic groups are more powerful politically. Their fates are not linked to particular parties and they shop around more frequently, even across ethnic lines. They prefer managerial strength and national politics over ethnic politics.

Urban-led parties generally possess stronger managerial skills, as evident in the PPP’s recent poor management record and the PML-N’s relatively better one, at least in terms of unveiling a dizzying range of populist projects. Most ‘liberal’ parties are rural-led, while the larger conservative parties are urban-led.

The incoming PML-N and PTI governments will probably outperform the ex-PPP and ANP governments in managerial terms. Even Mohajirs — richer, urban and ex-right-wingers — could gradually embrace the PTI and PML-N.

These factors and the small proportion of national seats in the south indicate that the current ‘liberal’ parties, despite being liberal only nominally, may not regain federal power. The long-standing political anomaly of coalitions of ‘liberal’ parties from smaller provinces often winning nationally in conservative and Punjab-majority Pakistan may now disappear.

However, a new anomaly has emerged: urban-led parties won most of the national seats in a rural-majority Pakistan. Moreover, Punjab-led parties won two-thirds of the seats in 2013. So, federal power appears to be gravitating towards urban-led, Punjab- based, conservative parties.

Liberals must not despair since ideological differences among larger parties are narrow anyway. ‘Liberal’ parties have accepted obscurantist constitutional provisions and abandoned progressive economics while the PML-N and PTI have partially adopted many liberal positions overtly or covertly, eg, peace with India, helping the vulnerable, closet secularism and good governance.

Being conservative, they may also more easily disarm the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan largely unconditionally or else mobilise societal support for decisive crackdowns. The rhetoric may be more conservative; actions will largely resemble those of nominally liberal parties.

Moreover, longer-term liberal prospects remain bright. Right-wing managerial-ism can deliver popular but questionable grandiose projects, eg bullet trains, but not the inclusive and sustainable development that liberalism can.

The majority of Pakistanis are low-income, ethnic and religious minorities’ grievances are high, women’s status is abysmal and the middle classes desire good governance.

These groups represent a potential liberal majority given strong ideas, a charismatic urban leadership, strong management and extensive grass-roots work. However, the PPP’s prospects are bleak given how badly its brand has been damaged.

So, newer, urban-based, national liberal parties must eventually emerge.

Meanwhile, the main-dish menu choice is between conservative (the PML-N) and more conservative (the PTI). Barring the PTI and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal, all other parties won the majority of their seats from one province.

Even the JUI-F largely won among Pakhtuns living in isolated areas near Afghanistan. Thus, the PTI enjoys more evenly spread support nationally than other parties — across Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Hindko-speakers and to some extent even Mohajirs. It seems to be the party-in-waiting for 2018. However, barring an unlikely disastrous PML-N managerial performance, demographics may remain unfavourable for it even then.

Occupying the narrow right-wing space between religious parties and the PML-N, and appealing largely to the small middle class based on its merit, it faces a demographic improbability. Patronage-driven parties still won the largest chunk of national seats in 2013. To win nationally, it must move to the PML-N’s left, and mobilise the disaffected groups mentioned earlier.

These elections show that Pakistan is neither the PPP’s landlord-run older Pakistan but nor is it the PTI’s CEO-run ‘naya’ Pakistan. It is the PML-N’s slowly changing Pakistan where patronage is now delivered more efficiently.

Despite the setback to the ‘liberals’, I view the election results positively. The presence of a serious third choice in the shape of the PTI has made the Bangladesh model less likely in the future.

Generals will also perforce have to show greater deference to the right-wing, northern-based and more popular politicians. Divided mandates could also generate a healthy competition between the PML-N and PTI for resolving managerial-cum-technical problems. But more serious work must await a liberal revival.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.