JUST when it seemed like the country was heading towards another, wholly avoidable political apocalypse, the Supreme Court stepped in to act as a much-needed safety valve. In an ideal world, the Panama Papers leak should’ve been dealt with through a bipartisan parliamentary commission overseeing civilian law-enforcement agencies and tax authorities. But given how far we are from an ideal world, we’ll willingly accept the judicialisation of politics as an improvement over both foot-dragging and the militarisation of politics.
So where does all this leave the PTI and its future prospects? There are some unequivocal positives to emerge for the party from these past 10 days. The KP wing gave an excellent account of itself in the face of significant government violence. It was able to mobilise workers on the ground, and Chief Minister Pervez Khattak’s many years of political experience appeared to have been put to good use.
On the other hand, the response in Punjab was fairly muted. Part of it was down to the detention of close to 600 PTI leaders and activists, and part of it may have to do with political fatigue. The party has held several demonstrations in the province this past year, and participated in a number of fiercely contested by-elections. All these events would have placed a considerable strain on their financial and political resources.
What shock could help the PTI? Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and an internal leadership struggle in the PML-N would be a major one.
There is also the small matter of increased factionalism and disarray within the party’s Punjab organisation. Prior to the protest, many provincial bigwigs rushed over to court house arrest in Bani Gala. There were plenty of photo-ops with the Great Leader, most of which served to demonstrate their loyalty and presence rather than political strength. With the top leadership in Islamabad, there were few left behind to organise protests or fight off police heavy-handedness in other cities of the province.
This is troubling for any number of reasons, but most of all for the party’s electoral future at the national level. Leading even a coalition government at the centre requires upwards of 50 out of 148 National Assembly seats from the province. The party’s current tally is six. Similarly, its haul of directly elected MPAs in a provincial assembly of 297 constituencies is 23.
The party won’t have to encounter such insurmountable odds in the 2018 election. The PML-N will face anti-incumbent sentiment and general voter apathy. They will also bleed out some local leaders after a failure to accommodate everyone in a long-drawn-out local government set-up. Most of all, abject failure in improving the fate of the agricultural sector will hurt the party in rural constituencies. Everything else equal, all these factors will take away some seats and may drag it closer to a simple majority from the heady heights of complete electoral dominance.
From the PTI’s electoral point of view, this situation is still far from ideal. A simple majority for the PML-N will still be a simple majority. Therefore, it needs a shock that would break away N-leaning voters and also consolidate all existing anti-N votes (or anti-N candidate vote as the case is in many situations) towards its camp. Due to a strong showing in the 2013 polls, and the peculiarities of a first-past-the-post system, this figure would be around 15pc of the ruling party vote in most constituencies.
Historically, voter shifts of this magnitude have usually happened under the strain of exogenous shocks. These could take the shape of economic crises, like food shortages, inflation, and even more crippling gas and power load-shedding. All three have contributed to the drastic decline in the popularity of various parties over the last two decades. Luckily for the PML-N, it seems neither of the three is on the cards. Their efforts at managing the power crisis may not have solved it, but it has certainly helped create a ‘new normal’ where citizens are okay with a few hours without power every day. With low oil prices and low commodity prices, it seems inflation too is not going to spiral out of control at any point soon. The general ease with the status quo is captured by recent polling by Gallup, which shows that a significant section of Punjab’s population believes their economic conditions are stable or improving.
The other source of shock that moved voters around was seen in the 1990s, when electoral prospects in Punjab were repeatedly damaged by the ‘dismissal’ effect. A forcible removal of the government essentially shows that the (mythical or real) powers that be are now aligned with the other camp. This looks far less likely to happen today since the military doesn’t seem to be in the mood to intervene. Its impact will also be muted because the PML-N is organisationally stronger than it was in the 1990s. Even if a snap election were to be forced, the party would still be in a good position.
So what other shock could help the PTI? Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and an internal leadership struggle in the PML-N would be a major one. In that context, what the PTI has been demonstrating is perfectly rational behaviour. It knows that the status quo works against it, so a significant blow (like losing the party leader) would help by loosening the PML-N, and freeing up the political brokers and ancillary hangers-on needed to win in a patronage-dominated province.
Unlikely as it is, if the Supreme Court commission were to implicate Nawaz in an asset concealment case, or find him guilty of misappropriation, it would dramatically alter the electoral map of Punjab. As of now, this remains Imran Khan’s best hope at becoming prime minister in 2018.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2016