A winning strategy?

Published September 11, 2016

ELECTIONS, elections, elections. Everyone’s talking about them, no one is expecting them; most of the smart money is on 2018. But savvier minds are turning to something else: can the PTI win and what would a winning strategy look like?

There is one, a mix of what Imran and PTI are already doing and a great deal of what they aren’t. But it’s wrapped in a puzzle: when his rivals can see a path to victory for him, why isn’t Imran taking it?

Let’s start with what Imran is doing right: battering the N-League and reminding Punjab that it’s been pretty much ruled non-stop for three decades by Sharifs who have grown their wealth immeasurably in the same period.

That has a twin potential electoral benefit. It stops Nawaz from becoming mythical, an untouchable colossus, and it elevates Imran — because he’s the one doing the attacking — to Nawaz’s equal.

Imran’s relentless attacks have kept Nawaz in electoral range. Oye Nawaz, indeed.

Then there’re the bits Imran is doing semi-right. Key among them: he’s gradually positioned the PTI as the default anti-PML-N option in Punjab. The demise of the PPP and the crumbling of the PML-Q have helped the process along — Punjab is effectively a battle between the N-League and PTI.

What Imran has done right here, in an electoral sense anyway, is to adjust to the old way of politics instead of forcing the PPP and PML-Q candidate and voter into a PTI straitjacket of so-called clean politics. It is basically a strategy of electables and it is dangerous for the PML-N because of the way Punjab works.

The PTI has made no effort to pull together the strands of a potentially winning coalition of voters against the PML-N.

Nowhere, barring maybe a couple of seats in Lahore, does the PML-N face zero opposition in Punjab. There’s always a political family and non-PML-N vote bank in every constituency, even where the N-League has hefty leads.

Bringing all of that together under an anti-PML-N umbrella can boost its potency: where the PPP, PML-Q and anti-N-League candidates and voters have become individually hopeless, together they could be in a position to challenge the PML-N.

Battering the PML-N and positioning the PTI as the default anti-PML-N option make good electoral sense. The problem for the PTI is that pretty much is where the good news ends.

For some, as yet inexplicable reason, the PTI has made no effort to pull together the strands of a potentially winning coalition of voters against the PML-N. The voters exist, they can be seen by the PML-N itself and allies of the PTI too, but Imran has baulked at assembling them together.

It comes down to three basic constituencies. Three constituencies that are all to some degree or the other unhappy with the PML-N and may be looking to switch, each for reasons of their own: farmers, exporters and traders.

Start with the most talked about lot: farmers. Whether it’s because of depressed commodity prices, spiky input prices, plain old bad government policies or a combination of all three, farmers are unhappy.

And when farmers are unhappy, they tend to turn their ire on the government of the day — either to pressure it into giving more handouts to agriculture or with the intention of punishing it electorally.

The bad thing for a government facing agrarian anger is that farmers tend to vote, are organised at the constituency level and react to a few, narrow set of factors — factors working against the PML-N this term.

A smarter Imran would be out there campaigning in rural Punjab. But he isn’t.

Next, the exporters. Behind those shrinking exports lie tales of real pain: small businesses shuttering; the big boys, with their capital-intensive production, consolidating; and jobs being lost.

Up and down central and northern Punjab, the stories are grim and economic toll real. As Imran concentrates on Lahore, Punjab’s small big cities are hurting: Kasur, Faisalabad, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Sialkot.

Imran is wasting his time in Lahore and Islamabad. A smarter Imran would be out there campaigning in the export hubs, in industrial Punjab. But he isn’t.

Finally, there’re the traders and small businesses. To keep the deficit down while driving up spending, the government has had to resort to heavy taxation.

But instead of the hard, economically sound way the government has taken the easy, economically damaging way: relying on a spate of taxation measures that are linked to turnover and consumption, not actual incomes.

The withholding tax on banking transactions exemplifies the problem. Instead of a documentation measure, it’s become a revenue-generation measure. Hence, even if you’re a filer you still pay withholding tax and God help you if you try to recover it at year-end from the taxman.

Elsewhere, stories abound about an FBR run amok — in fantastical cases, about money being directly siphoned off from private bank accounts. The holders remain quiet because they don’t want further trouble.

All of that adds up to real drama and simmering anger. The pro-business PML-N has assembled a record of an anti-business, tax-and-spend party this term.

A smarter Imran would be out there, gathering up the trader/small business vote bank, preaching the PTI’s business philosophy and policy blueprint, and promising to do better. But he isn’t.

Can the PTI win? Yes. What would a winning strategy look like? It’s in plain sight:

Batter the Sharifs; position the PTI as the default anti-PML-N option; and woo the three major constituencies — farmers, exporters and traders/small businesses — that have reason to look beyond the PML-N.

But it isn’t happening. And no one really knows why. Maybe not even Imran.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn September 11th, 2016



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