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Rise of the ‘no-party’

October 30, 2015


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

THERE were more independent candidates in the general elections of 2013 than in the two elections preceding it put together. In fact, their number had crossed the 1000-mark (in the National Assembly elections) only once since 1988 but jumped to an all-time high of 2,356 in the past election.

The extraordinary feat remained hidden from the eyes of most observers because the ratio of votes converting into seats was low and because the small number of victors among them availed themselves of the legal opportunity to join one party or the other; they became invisible in the latter stage of the number-crunching game.

But looking at it in terms of the number of votes they collectively polled reveals some astonishing facts. Independent candidates had the fourth largest share of votes at the national level. The real surprise, however, lies in this share’s provincial break-up.

It is routine for whoever is refused a party ticket to file papers as an independent.

They had the second biggest share of polled votes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Their success was not one-off or accidental as they sustained their performance in the local polls held two years after the general elections. The local government constituencies are much smaller than the national and provincial ones. This enabled them to strike a better vote-seat ratio in these elections. The independents were only second to the PTI in the KP local elections in terms of the constituencies won. Their role in the formation of governments, however, again remained secondary as many of them preferred to support the dominant party in their district or tehsils.

Independents had the second biggest share in the votes polled in Punjab, too, in 2013. They outshone the five million votes of the third position holder, the PTI, by a big margin of over one million. The Punjab local election may see a replay of KP but the similarities may not extend to all aspects.

The recent by-election in the Okara national constituency (NA-144) has put an intriguing spin on the situation. It took observers by surprise as an independent new entrant beat both the ruling and the opposition party candidates by a huge margin. By-elections are generally considered a cakewalk for the ruling party but the PML-N lost the seat badly despite having won it in 2013 with a massive margin — and it didn’t lose it to their arch-rival.

The PML-N failed to read the situation and the PTI’s focus on picking up the PML-N’s fallen pieces and recycling a weak PPP also proved counterproductive.

The supply side of the political leadership in Punjab seems to be facing a surge and both the ruling and the opposition parties apparently do not possess the capacity to handle it.

The increase may simply be owing to demographic and normal economic growth factors. Punjab is big — consider the fact that it is more populous than Germany which in turn is the biggest country in the Europe Union.

It is but natural that after every 10 to 15 years, there will be a new crop of political actors and aspirants. The ‘natural’ corollary to it would be that the ranks of political parties would be brimming with new human resource and be undergoing a transformation in leadership and outlook.

But this is not happening and cannot happen as the concepts of transformation are alien to our political class. They know of only one way to ‘— through mediaeval ‘laws’ of succession, including a will left behind by a departing leader.

The parties are also clueless about how to distribute power within their own ranks and file, evolve decision-making processes, set some rules of the game and then follow these. They, instead, are refusing to come out of the 1990s when a dynast and a narrative, mostly of victimhood, was considered enough to rally masses and ‘the great leader’ could either take all the decisions by himself or herself, or simply assign these to a confidant with an established track record of ‘loyalty to the party’.

This stranglehold of a few over party affairs and their refusal to institutionalise matters is suffocating these political institutions. They have no room for new entrants, not even doors to welcome them.

The Jamaat-i-Islami recently had mobile floats on Lahore’s roads, decorated with visuals and blaring speakers, as part of its membership drive. The same strategy is used by the PTI distributing membership forms from atop a van to random people as if these are some discount coupons being doled out by a shopping mall or a consumer industry. The paper usually ends up as packing material at small vendors’ shops.

Reaching out to the people means much more than just managing the optics of a popular political brand. People are not availing themselves of the ‘loot sales’ of party memberships, not at least the political class. It has become normal practice that whoever is refused a party ticket to contest an election by ‘his or her party’, finds it necessary to immediately file papers as an independent.

The party does not reprimand him or her for this act of disloyalty. It doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. In fact, from thereon, they both enter into a prying game. If the independent wins, the party will scold its losing official candidate and try to woo back the old member and if the party itself loses the election as a whole and is consequently unable to form a government, the independent victors find it opportune to join the new ruling party.

That’s what they consider a win-win situation. This, however, can hold true if the number of independent winners remains small enough for the ruling (and/or opposition) party to absorb effectively.

But what if in the coming local elections their number exceeds these parties’ capacity to oblige or like the Okara by-election winner they decide not to take the bait from the ruling or the opposition parties? That would mean that Punjab is pregnant with another ‘new’ party and we already know how, and by whom, they are midwifed in our country.

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

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2015

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