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Sindhi party and sympathy votes, here are some PPP myths busted

Updated Dec 07, 2016 02:22pm

They say history is all about myths that are woven around kings and their battles for power with their ilk. In the same vein, modern history is about myths surrounding political leaders and their parties’ struggles for power.

Unlike the royal battles, these are mostly fought in the electoral arena and, luckily, the process generates enough data and information to help us bust those myths. This enables us to know, with some confidence, what people — the voters — were actually thinking and how and why they voted the way they did.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) turned 49 this December 1. Throughout its tumultuous history, the party has produced great leaders. Our understanding of the PPP is however surrounded by some myths. Here is my attempt at dispelling them:

Myth 1: PPP is a Sindhi party

The PPP has not been able to form a government in Punjab since General Ziaul Haq ousted the party’s first government in July 1977. It won three of the seven national elections after Zia but never a single one in Punjab.

In 1988, the PPP came back to power under the leadership of Benazir Bhutto, but Punjab remained with its arch rival, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a large alliance of right-wing parties, with a young Nawaz Sharif as its most enterprising figure.

Benazir repeated the feat in the 1993 general elections, but had to handover Punjab to its junior partner, the Pakistan Muslim League - Junejo. The PPP had to give Punjab to Junejo since in return, his party supported Benazir at the centre. The PPP returned to government following the 2008 elections, but it was the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) that occupied Pakistan’s largest province.

Does Punjab detest the PPP and has it rejected the party for good? That’s what many believe, with the flip side that ‘PPP is a Sindhi party with no strength in Punjab’.

But PPP isn’t really Sindhi. In fact, if it could claim a nationality, it ought to be Punjabi. Have a look below at the provincial break up of the party’s vote bank.

Punjab’s share in total votes polled by the PPP in the entire country was a whopping three quarter in the 1970 elections. It has hovered around two-thirds in the number of votes in the next six general elections. In 2008, it dropped to a little over half and went below this mark only in the last elections in 2013, which was the first time that the PPP got more votes in Sindh than it did in Punjab.

The catch here is that the PPP has been unable to translate its votes into seats in Punjab. For example, it polled 5.1 million votes in Punjab in 1988 and won 52 seats. But in the next elections, it could win only 14 seats despite having polled 5.35 million votes.

Explore: What they never tell us about Ayub Khan's regime

Myth 2: PPP gets votes for its 'shaheeds' (martyrs)

The party’s first leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, mobilised the public around the epic slogan of roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothing and shelter). It worked wonders. It wouldn't be wrong to say that the slogan alone was responsible for adding to the much discussed charisma to the personality of the party's founder.

But in later stages, the slogan disappeared and was replaced by Jiay Bhutto. The PPP is now known as the party of shaheeds (martyrs) and it loves to invoke these deaths, as it has become its biggest political capital.

But does it work? Have people been voting for the PPP out of sympathy or for love for its leaders who have passed?

Many critics want us to believe this, but I have my doubts and some supporting facts. If sympathy could win votes for a party, the PPP must have been flooded with it in 2008 when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated days before polling began.

The PPP did win the elections, but was it because it rode a huge wave of sympathy? Here is a close examination of how voters behaved.

In 2008, the PPP won 9.2 per cent more votes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) compared to the previous elections. But so did the Awami National Party (ANP) and the PML-N as their vote tallies rose by 8.3% and 7.9% respectively.

In fact, as the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) bubble burst in 2008, every party picked up from its pieces. The religious parties’ alliance lost one million of its 1.4 million votes it won in the 2002 election. PPP’s gain was not disproportionate to those of others, but more importantly, the party’s share of votes in KP in 2008 was still less than what it was in 1988 and 1990.

In Punjab, the PPP gained two per cent more votes than it had in 2002. However, in 2002, the party’s share in Punjab increased by 4.4% compared to 1997. This means that the party’s vote bank growth actually shrunk in 2008! Wither sympathy?

The party, however, added a hefty 1.5 million votes to its 2002 tally of 2.2 million in Sindh, taking the total to 3.7 million. But its seats in Sindh increased only by four, from 27 to 31. This means that the party polled more votes (or sympathy votes, if you may call them so) only in areas that were already its strongholds.

So more votes in Sindh? Yes, but the victory was pyrrhic.

Incidentally, the other party in Sindh, the MQM, showed similar growth in these elections. MQM’s votes jumped from 0.93 million in 2002 to an unbelievable 2.53 million in 2008.

What triggered the rise? This could be anything but sympathy for the departed leader of its opposing party.

The lesson to be learnt here is that people don’t vote out of sympathy or love of a leader.

On the same topic: Riding the arrow: An ideological history of the PPP

Myth 3: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policies turned Punjab against the PPP

The first PPP government espoused socialist ideals and nationalised not only big industries but also smaller entrepreneurs like floor and rice mills, as well as private educational institutes. This was the main livelihood of many central Punjabis who turned against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and joined hands with General Zia. Thus began the PPP’s decline in Punjab, which was completed in 2013 when the party was literally wiped off from the province.

This is how many analysts describe the PPP’s decline. But did Punjab turn against the PPP in reaction to Bhutto’s policies?

The numbers belie this. Here is a chart showing the number of votes the PPP got in Punjab in every election from 1970 onwards:

Bhutto’s policies had no impact on the PPP’s votes in Punjab. In the first three elections after General Zia, the party kept getting around five million votes, which was exactly the same as its performance in 1970.

Four out of every 10 Punjabi voters remained loyal to the PPP in all of these elections. Despite Bhutto’s nationalisation, other policies, and General Zia’s decade long dreadful regime, Punjab kept depositing its hopes and aspirations in the PPP.

The rout came much later, in 1997. Every second PPP voter in Punjab decided to abstain from the electoral process and they never returned with the same enthusiasm afterwards. By 2013, only one in every 10 Punjabi voters was a PPP supporter.

Myth 4: Zardari did it!

The PPP lost half of its voters in 1997. In the 207-member National Assembly, it had only 18 seats – and not even a single one in Punjab. In the 248-strong Punjab Assembly, the PPP had a humiliating three seats.

The die-hard PPP jiyalas rest the entire blame of this disastrous turn on Asif Ali Zardari, the alien in the house of Bhuttos. He was identified as the main character in numerous corruption scandals that plagued Benazir’s government.

Zardari was also blamed for spoiling her government’s relations with the party’s own President Leghari. Last but not least, conspiracy theories about Zardari's involvement in the murder of Murtaza Bhutto was the last straw.

It is understandable that the jiyalas had to find a scapegoat to salvage Benazir's reputation, as they had entrusted their political ideals in her and were feeling betrayed.

But the malice ran deeper than just one or two people or even a corrupt to the core clique. The jiyalas weren’t just let down by their leaders but by the times as well, which is what many of them fail to acknowledge.

They fail, or refuse, to see what was reshaping the entire world at that time. Pakistan was no exception and whoever headed the government, the policy dictates were the same.

This was a period when the Cold War had come to an end and globalisation was in full throttle. Neo-liberal policies had become the norm. Fiscal policies were being dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the public sector was shrinking at an alarming speed. Nationalistic protectionism was the new vice and attracting Foreign Direct Investment was the new virtue. Labour unions were now seen as a menace and nationalisation had taken a u-turn to meet its nemesis, privatisation.

Amidst these massive global waves, the PPP’s roti, kapra aur makan stood denuded.

Even if it hadn’t lost relevance for the people, the old slogans were not in sync with the new paradigms. The jiyalas were destined to be betrayed.

PPP’s rule from 1993 to 1997 wasn’t just an abysmal failure of its governance, it was also the end of the old socialist styled politics, which was the only form of politics the party was known for.

It was a time of loss for the party. It didn’t just lose an election in 1997; it also lost the politics it had invented.

Also read: The curious Presidency of Mr Zardari

Myth 5: PPP will strike back in 2018

This one is a developing myth and is gaining strength from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) stark failures in meeting its goal of dismantling the PML-N government. The PTI had encroached upon the PPP’s electorate in 2013, but given Imran Khan’s failure, can Bilawal reclaim the lost ground?

After the 1997 debacle, the PPP started to fully own the politics of patronage. While the roti, kapra aur makan became more political rhetoric than anything else, the party candidates devoted themselves to competing with their rivals in handling thaana-kutchery for their supporters, electors, and other similar ‘services’ that are the hallmark of their politics.

The PPP made gains in 2002 and 2008, but during both these elections, the original champion of patronage politics in Punjab was missing. In 2002, Sharifs were exiled and their local leaders were being hounded by the military government. In 2008, the PML-N had just resumed its activities and was in disarray because party members were unsure about its prospects.

PPP played on these weaknesses of its rival and found its way to Islamabad in 2008. But they couldn’t beat the PML-N on its home turf — the Punjab.

By 2013, the PML-N was well-settled and no other party was able to match its strength. The PPP now had a competitor in the shape of the PTI for even second position in Punjab and was badly beaten.

The PPP could not reinvent its roti, kapra aur makan politics post 1997, nor could it master the politics of patronage in Punjab. All it did was invoke what it called the great sacrifices that its leaders had rendered for the causes of the common people. But it doesn’t work this way.

The party will either have to reinvent its own politics or beat the original champion of thaana-kutchery politics at its own game.

Both challenges are Herculean but can the PPP meet them?


All the numbers and percentages used in this article are for National Assembly elections.


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