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Election narratives

July 20, 2014


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

AS the unravelling of Imran and the PTI into an anti-democratic force accelerates, the narrative of last year’s elections is increasingly being shaped by him. For this, credit to Imran’s tenacity — audacity? — and the N-League’s bungling.

But all the PTI and the PML-N have really done — so far — is demonstrate that elections and the narrative surrounding them are too important to be left to politicians alone.

A year on, all we have is Imran jeering loudly and the PML-N protesting weakly and everyone else now beginning to have doubts about what exactly happened a year go.

But a year ago, it’s worth remembering, there were three separate narratives in three phases: early 2013; April 20 onwards; and May 11.

Undemocratic and selfish as it may be, Imran Khan is on to something.

Through the first quarter of 2013, conventional wisdom had it that the PML-N would win the largest number of seats in parliament, but would fall short of a majority; the PTI would dominate in KP; and PPP would hold in rural Sindh and possibly make some gains in south Punjab.

Then, when tickets were finalised and Imran really began to campaign three weeks before the elections, the mood seemed to change — and so did the assessments. The PTI’s 30-40 seats looked like it may get bumped up to 60-70, inevitably at the cost of the PML-N.

Until then, PML-N had looked good for 90-odd seats of the 272 directly elected, with the more optimistic assessments having them close to 110. Imran’s surge post-April 20 initially seemed to jeopardise the N-League’s 90-odd floor.

But then there was a late twist, with Nawaz himself embarking on a multi-city, multi-rally campaign that left everyone hedging their bets: N-League would end up somewhere between the original floor and ceiling estimates of 90 and 110 seats.

That just reflected the immense uncertainty on May 11. PML-N would win the most seats, everyone was sure. But how much had Imran’s late campaign surge hurt the N-League and how much damage control had Nawaz managed through his even later campaign surge nobody knew.

And then came the bit that Imran would like everyone to forget: May 11 itself, where everyone, even the PML-N, was proved wrong.

Until May 11, the guess — and it was really just a guess because polling and data analysis is so rudimentary here — had been that any per cent of the vote above the historical high-water mark of roughly 46pc would go to the PTI.

That seemed to make sense for several reasons. The PML-N had run a stodgy campaign; the flair and flash was all with the PTI; and incumbency, even at the provincial level, was supposed to hurt a party at the next election — so why would any new voter opt for the PML-N over the PTI?

Sound as that analysis seemed, it suffered from a basic flaw: it was based on historical patterns whereas May 11 was a historic election.

Essentially, on May 11 Pakistani politicians and pundits discovered that they don’t exactly know what makes the Pakistani voter tick. Which, if you thought about it, isn’t that surprising because the Pakistani voter had — until May 11, 2013 — never been given a shot at deciding for himself what he thinks.

Nobody seriously thinks that May 11, 2013 was free and fair. But it was certainly more credible and acceptable than the election that preceded it and the one before that and the ones before that in the ’90s.

So, if you’re not Imran, what other — plausible — theory may be out there to explain the results in essentially Punjab in May ’13? How did the turnout surge and yet the PTI barely registered in the victory column in the province?

There is an explanation that the PTI would rather ignore: in tandem with the electronic media, the PTI convinced people of the importance of their vote — but wasn’t good enough at convincing voters to vote for the PTI.

To put it another way, the decision to vote was separate from the decision whom to vote for. Or if not entirely separate, the decision to vote was not entirely dictated by whom to vote for.

The PTI and the electronic media were fantastically good at convincing people that voting mattered more than it had before, but once voters got down to thinking about whom to cast their vote for, the PTI made less of a compelling case.

Which, again in hindsight, looks like a perfectly logical explanation and, if you think about it, a good one to boot.

What was Imran’s campaign all about? It was built on a tripod of anti-corruption, anti-incumbency and anti-West/War on Terror. From the beginning, there were doubts about whether that shallow message could gain deep enough traction in a first-past-the-post system.

So is Imran really just insulting the intelligence and maturity of the Pakistani voter when for the very first time they were given the chance to vote intelligently and maturely and, arguably, that’s exactly what they did?

No. Undemocratic and selfish as it may be, Imran is on to something. In a first-past-the-post system, you just need one vote more than the next guy to win. If you can’t captivate the voter, but your opponent doesn’t inspire them either — there’s always an opportunity.

In May ’13, the PTI established itself as a serious contender for power. The party barely won any seats in Punjab, but in large chunk of the contests they finished a credible second. One switch is all that it will take for Punjab to go from the green column to the red and green column.

If you’re Imran, you can’t be sure of sustaining your challenge through till 2018. So why not roll the dice now and hope for the best?

Power, after all, is so much sexier than democracy.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2014