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SMOKERS’ CORNER: LESSONS FROM PS-114

Updated July 16, 2017

Right after it became clear that the PPP candidate Saeed Ghani was going to win the hotly contested by-election in the PS-114 constituency in Karachi, I received the following SMS from a veteran PPP worker who has been serving the party in this city for decades: “Salam, Paracha sahib. As you can see Saeed is winning. This proves Zardari Saaab [sic] wrong because Saeed, a common PPP worker, defeated influence of big shot Marwat in this area which supports PTI. And Zardari wanted Marwat in party.”

The PPP has never won this Sindh provincial assembly seat. When I called the PPP worker who had been texting me, he said (in Urdu): “People of all ethnicities, religions and sects who reside here [in PS-114] voted for Saeed because they see him as a common middle-class man who is committed, decent and educated.”

The worker again reminded me how the PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari had agreed to let Irfanullah Marwat join the PPP, until Zardari’s two daughters refused to let him in the party due to a scandal he was allegedly a part of in the early 1990s. Marwat had won this seat (on a PML-N ticket) in the 2013 election.

Insulting your electorate’s traditional voting pattern yields you no votes

Even though he was unseated by the Supreme Court for election fraud (thus the recent by-election), Marwat still wields considerable influence here. That’s why, when the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) candidate, M. Najeeb Haroon, managed to convince Marwat to support PTI in the by-election, most media commentators believed that Najeeb’s prospects (of winning) had greatly increased.

But the final results exhibited an entirely different scenario. PTI managed just 5,098 votes, even less than a weak PML-N candidate (5,353). The veteran PPP worker I was talking to said something very interesting during our conversation: “Imran Khan [the PTI chief] has started to think like Zardari,” he laughed.

He then added: “He [Imran] now thinks all of Pakistan’s constituencies can be won through influential and moneyed ‘electables.’ This is not true. PPP gave tickets to many common workers in 1970 and most of them won. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto also agreed to give party tickets to a few committed workers, and they all won. Bilawal [Zardari’s son] wants committed, common workers to contest elections, but his father is still stuck with moneyed candidates. Indeed, they too are important in many constituencies, but the voters of various other areas reject them because they [the candidates] are not one of their own. People are no fools.”

He raised his voice while uttering the last statement (“People are no fools”). It clearly alluded to the way many folks these days (especially on social media sites) begin to curse the voters if their candidate loses an election. This phenomenon is relatively new.

When I was going through academic papers, books and newspaper articles on Pakistan’s elections since 1970 during my research for both of my books (End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero), I did not come across even a single statement by an author, commentator or a disappointed voter claiming that the voters were fools.

But recently it has been noticed that every time a PTI candidate loses an election, its supporters begin to attack the voters for being ill-informed and foolish. However, PTI chairman Imran Khan, his party’s senior leadership and its candidates do not deal in such accusations.

They can’t because it can greatly upset the voters and insult their intelligence.

Once Imran did venture into this thorny territory, but he did so before an election. During a by-poll in Karachi, he told a rally full of Mohajirs that they had been voting (for the MQM) like “living corpses.” Mohajirs who are the majority ethnic group in the city were clearly offended and handed the PTI candidate a resounding defeat.

A Sindhi man from Mirpurkhas who worked as a driver for me between 2012 and 2015, once told me an interesting incident. He said that just before the 2013 election, he (like most Sindhis) had been voting for the PPP; but this time he was preparing to vote for the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam -Fazal (JUI-F) in Mirpurkhas. He said that when he reached his tiny village (on the outskirts of Mirpurkhas), he saw the people there were very agitated by the JUI-F candidate.

He said: “When I asked them what had happened, they told me that in a speech the candidate [who was affiliated with a madressah in the village] had told the people that they had become sheep at the time of polling because they voted for the PPP.”

He said that even people who were part of the madressah were extremely offended and the whole village, which was planning to vote for JUI-F, went to the polls and once again voted for the PPP.

Saeed Ghani is considered to be a soft-spoken, humble, middle-class man — he is also a Mohajir. The veteran PPP worker I was talking to said that “Saeed is perfect for constituencies such as PS-114.” What he meant was that Karachi has some of the most ethnically and religiously diverse constituencies.

Large areas of the city have dense Mohajir concentrations that traditionally vote for the MQM — which, despite the many controversies the party has been embroiled in, continues to send the largest number of middle-class men and women to the assemblies.

PS-114, however, is part of one of Karachi’s most diverse National Assembly (NA) constituencies, the NA-251. NA-251, just like Karachi’s large NA-250 has a mix of Mohajir, Pakhtun, Punjabi, Baloch and Sindhi voters. There is also a huge Christian and Hindu vote bank here.

MQM won PS-114 in 1990, 1993 and 2008 mainly due to a combination of the constituency’s Mohajir vote bank and MQM’s good working relationship with the area’s Shia, Christian and Hindu groups.

Irfanullah Marwat defeated the MQM here in 2013 on a PML-N ticket — mostly bagging the area’s Pakhtun and Punjabi votes and the votes of Christian and Hindu groups who switched sides after being disappointed by the MQM.

Even though in this year’s by-election the turnout was about 30 percent, expert election observers such as Zia-ur-Rehman of The News suggest that Ghani not only got the traditional PPP vote — the Sindhi and the Baloch — but also managed to usurp some Mohajir/MQM votes, and Marwat’s Pakhtun vote bank which was expected to go to the PTI. Ghani also received a majority of the area’s Christian and Hindu votes, and also the votes of Shias and ‘Barelvis’.

“Ghani is a universal man [sic],” the veteran PPP worker told me. He concluded his conversation by adding: “Ghani doesn’t talk about religion, his ethnicity, his class. Just his plans. This appeals to the mixed people of constituencies like PS-114.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017