AN argument doing the rounds suggests that a ‘right-wing wave’ has swept Pakistan’s recent general elections.
The arithmetic based on the numbers of seats won and votes cast would suggest that conservative parties have won the election, and this in turn would suggest, at least at first glance, that Pakistanis have consciously shifted to, and chosen, conservative and right-wing candidates.
Clearly, such analysis simplifies electoral choices and does not fully explain Pakistan’s apparent, and differentiated, turn to the right.
By all accounts, the numbers are persuasive and do support the conclusions above. At the national level, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has received 35pc of votes and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) 17.8pc.
If we add some of the Islamist parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and not counting the minor parties, then the total votes received by parties which are conservative — and there ought to be no two views about them being conservative — would be greater: at least 57pc of the votes cast went to such parties, whether overtly Islamist or conservative of a different kind.
If one wants to distinguish non-conservative parties, and include the PPP, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in this group — for argument’s sake as it is clearly a highly problematic proposition to call them ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ given the nature of the politics of one among this group — then these three parties received merely 23pc of the popular vote.
Such analysis ignores many of the nuances which have had an effect on Pakistan’s elections. One needs to examine the votes cast in the light of broader factors.
Take the case of the PML-N. It won in Punjab, perhaps not because there was a sudden lurch towards conservatism, but perhaps because the previous PML-N government in the province was seen by voters as a party of choice, and worthy of being invested in again.
Re-electing a political party is not an ideological swing, it just reaffirms faith in that party. The PML-N was re-elected in Punjab because the perception of the electorate of Punjab was that the party had delivered whatever they felt was necessary.
Of course, there was also a strong anti-PPP sentiment for its failure to govern at the federal level, which added to the PML-N getting more votes overall. The PPP in Punjab was also a leaderless party, which didn’t help its cause much. The bastion of the PPP, southern Punjab, also collapsed on account of poor politics and poor governance.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI made extraordinary inroads, it is again difficult to sustain the argument that these were consciously political choices in favour of an Islamic conservatism.
Having dismissed both of the last two elected governments in 2002 and 2008, the Pakhtunkhwa electorate has only shown its commitment to addressing problems of Islamic militancy in the province by choosing the party it feels will be best able to do so.
The fact that their choice is the conservative PTI, is a reflection of how the PTI has promised to deal with drones, the Taliban and other militant factors. To suggest that this is also an ideological ‘right-wing’ choice, is only partially correct.
A distinction needs to be made about the different types of conservatisms in Pakistan and the electorate’s choice of such politics.
For instance, there is no doubt that Islamic political parties, such as the JUI-F and the JI, are conservative because of their understanding and politics based on religion.
About the PML-N, one would probably not be wrong in comparing it to a European Christian Democratic party or one closer to Turkey’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) rather than to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The PTI, most of the time, exudes the worst forms of conservatism and in many ways is seen as an English-speaking Jamaat-i-Islami, but also talks about issues not very dissimilar to those of the PML-N.
In terms of administrative reform and governance, it sounds more like World Bank right-wing technocratic crusaders, rather than Islamist ideologues, although by joining its twin to form a government in KP, perhaps its real colours will be revealed.
The corporate, so-called ‘good governance’ conservative agenda of both the PML-N and the PTI — which none of the so-called liberal parties had — distinguishes them from Islamist political conservatism, and may have been the choice of the electorate in terms of service delivery.
It is different from what is normally called conservatist politics in Muslim majoritarian countries.
Moreover, specific and local issues of politics may have also had a strong impact on how voters voted. The argument that Pakistan has moved to the right politically, or that the elections show a rise of politically conscious conservatism, needs be differentiated for its layered distinctiveness.
However, even if voters have not made a conscious choice of conservatism, whether Islamic or of the ‘good governance’ kind, such choices bring numerous unintended consequences which have far-reaching ramifications on society and politics.
The writer is a political economist.