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Is the party over?

June 08, 2015

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The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

THE political parties are jubilant for various reasons at the unofficial results of the local government elections held recently in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf wants us to believe that it has entrenched itself deeper in the province. The Awami National Party is celebrating its resurrection and religious parties are upbeat that despite the government campaign against religious extremism, their political base remains intact.

There have, however, emerged some worrying new trends that all parties are trying to ignore though these have the potential of causing serious damage to the development of electoral democracy in our country.

The PTI seems to have topped the party table but remains short of a simple majority in most district and tehsil councils. But the real surprise has been sprung by the independent candidates who have managed to become the second biggest ‘party’. According to law, these independent winners are free to join any party within three days of the official announcement of results.

In the immediate aftermath, this will open up the floodgates of a legalised form of what has been known as horse-trading. As parties try to outdo each other in attaining the requisite numbers to form governments in districts and tehsils, independent winners will assume the role of kingmakers.

The law allowing independent winners to join a party was enacted by Gen Musharraf, one week after the polling on Oct 10, 2002, that is only when he realised that his ‘king’s party’ was short of numbers. Independents happily obliged the king. Later amendments in the laws have kept this provision as such.

This has led to some disturbing developments. For example, in a tough, high turnout (68pc) contest in NA 91 in 2013, an independent candidate defeated a PML-N ticket-holder by a margin of just 4,000 votes, only to join the same party days after the polls. The same happened on many other seats where the independent contestants joined the ‘enemy ranks’ soon after defeating them. These members are PML-N parliamentarians now but do they represent the PML-N voters of their constituencies?


Party politics has been at cross purposes with the politics of patronage all through our history.


In contrast, the PML-N can hardly claim a presence in three constituencies of eastern Balochistan (NA 265-267) where its candidates secured just 2.6pc of the polled votes in 2013, yet all three independent winners from these constituencies later joined the party. So the PML-N can now claim to be the party representing this area without having any effective party presence there.

Independent winners have, however, been too few to substantially impact party equations at the national level. There were 18 MNAs in 2002 (16 joined the PML-Q, one joined the PPP and one the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal), 11 in 2008 (seven joined the PPP, four the PML-N) and 21 in 2013 with all but three joining the PML-N after the polls. (These figures exclude the independent winners from Fata.)

KP’s local elections have placed the independents at an exalted position in the electoral matrix. The trend had started during the general elections of 2013 but remained unnoticed. There were 2,356 independent contestants on 268 national seats in these elections while the number had only once risen marginally above 1,000 since the 1988 elections.

In the provincial assembly elections of Punjab and KP, not only did the number of independent contestants touch unprecedented heights, they were actually the second largest group in terms of polled votes.

In local elections as the size of constituencies is much smaller, the independents have been able to translate their votes into seats more effectively than they could in the past provincial and national elections.

Political parties, however, do not read this as a warning sign for sustenance and growth of their structures. Their understanding of the party as a political organisation has substantially changed over the past decades and they, in fact, find this new trend beneficial and encourage it.

The Local Government Act 2013 of KP provides for party-based elections at the district and tehsil council level but has kept the local council (village and mohalla level) elections party-less. Now local councils cannot perform even their basic functions without the ‘blessings’ of the tehsil and district councils. They will have to pledge affiliation to the ruling parties to secure even small favours and that’s how the ruling parties will harvest the new crop of grass-roots leaders as its cadre.

This arrangement seems to be the logical extension of the PTI’s policy of inducting electables in its ranks. Other parties are no exception either. ‘Win first and join the party later’ is the new rule preferred by all the parties. It will go a long way in institutionalising the politics of patronage.

In what now seems to be the classical approach, a political party is to have a worldview, a vision for the country, if not an ideology and a strategy to mobilise the masses in its support. Independent candidates cannot possibly have all of these in their individual capacity. All they can claim to have is the ability to translate some form of traditional, personal power into an election victory. They seek power only to sustain their status, not to change it.

Party politics has been at cross purposes with the politics of patronage all through our history with the latter being the mainstay of military dictators. Ayub banned all parties and replaced them with a network of power patronage through his basic democracies model. The other side hit back in the 1970 elections and the winners on only nine of 300 national seats were independents. As the ideological struggle among the parties sharpened further the number of victorious independents came down to naught in 1977. Gen Zia then crushed the entire process and reinstated the politics of patronage and attempted to institutionalise it by holding party-less general elections in 1985.

Though the parties won back their identities soon afterwards they were slowly diluted over the next three decades and it now seems that the political process has come full circle, sadly to arrive at the same point where Gen Zia had left it.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2015

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