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Back to the hustings

Updated May 02, 2018


BANNERS are up and political leaders are out at the hustings. It is now the season of rallies and shifting alliances as the countdown to the 2018 general elections has begun amidst deepening uncertainties. Given such an intensely polarised political atmosphere, the run-up to the polls has never been trickier.

There are still many hurdles to cross on the way to what is believed to be the most critical vote that would determine the future course of politics in this country. The outcome is never easy to predict given the volatility of our political landscape; it is much more complicated now with other factors influencing the process.

Principles and ideology have never been virtues in Pakistan’s electoral politics. This is clearly evident, with so-called electables ready to ditch their parties for better prospects. At the other end, political parties are only too eager to embrace the turncoats. Not surprisingly, the exodus is mostly taking place from the ranks of the ruling PML-N which seems to have come under greater pressure following the life ban on Nawaz Sharif’s holding public office.

Another top PML-N leader bit the dust as the Islamabad High Court last week unseated foreign minister Khawaja Asif for perjury and hiding his employment and assets abroad. Predictably, the ruling has added to the controversy about the use of constitutional Articles 62 and 63 to disqualify political leaders. Although the charges against the former foreign minister seem much more substantive, the ban is being depicted by party supporters as yet another example of victimisation and selective judicial action.

Previously a movement for change that inspired voters, the PTI seems to have lost momentum.

Meanwhile, the former prime minister faces possible conviction by an accountability court on a litany of corruption charges. While Nawaz Sharif appears determined to fight back, it is not clear how many senior party leaders and lawmakers would stand by him when it comes to the crunch. Given the perception that the security establishment would not let Sharif back in saddle and that there are no signs of the judiciary relenting, the cracks in the party have widened. The desertion of some half a dozen PML-N lawmakers mainly from south Punjab is seen by many as just the beginning of the opening of the floodgates.

It is evident that the PML-N would go into the election campaign playing the victim card and on the slogan of ‘giving respect to the vote’. However phony this mantra may sound, it has helped Sharif maintain his mass popular support base in Punjab. But it may not be enough for the party to sweep the polls as the noose tightens around it. The disqualification of Khawaja Asif has dealt a serious political blow to the PML-N and intensified the demoralisation within its ranks.

There are conflicting views on the political fallout of the expected conviction of the former prime minister and members of his family on the eve of the elections. While some believe that it could reinforce a sympathy wave for Sharif, others think it could deepen the cracks within the party. Whatever the situation, it will cast a long shadow on the entire election process, adding to the prevailing uncertainty.

It is evident that Punjab will be the main electoral battleground where the PML-N is being challenged by the PTI. Given its formidable mass base and capacity to challenge the incumbent, it is not surprising that most defectors seek to jump on Imran Khan’s bandwagon. The perception of tacit support by the establishment makes the party more attractive to the electables and opportunists. The virtual annihilation of the PPP in Punjab has also given a boost to the PTI.

Last week, the PTI launched its election campaign with an impressive show of strength in Lahore, the citadel of Sharif’s political power. Imran Khan has also announced an 11-point charter of reform that his party pledges to undertake if it comes to power. Interestingly, the new slogan of ‘one Pakistan’ has replaced the old one of ‘naya Pakistan’.

It is uncertain whether this rather ambiguous slogan could become a rallying point for the electorate. The change of slogan also signifies the changing complexion of the party. Previously a movement for change that inspired voters — particularly the youth — in 2013, the PTI seems to have lost momentum with the mass induction of defectors from other parties, many of them with dubious records.

This transformation has affected the PTI’s image as a party of change. Nevertheless, with a large number of so-called electables in its ranks, the party leadership appears confident it has a better chance of winning the elections. It is a bargain Imran Khan perhaps struck to reach the highest pedestal of power.

One can also argue that the PTI has never been an ideological party and had no clear plan to take the country forward on the path of progress. But even for a reform agenda, it needs some principled people around. The party’s 11-point charter indicates a greater emphasis on the development of human infrastructure such as education, health and environment in sharp contrast to the PML-N’s obsession with motorways and other grand infrastructural projects.

However positive the charter may appear, the real challenge arises when it is time to deliver on the promises. Notwithstanding all good intentions, there is a need for capacity to implement the reform agenda. The experience of the PTI’s five-year rule in KP has not been exemplary except for police reform and some improvement in the education and health sectors.

Of course, the PPP is not out of the contest despite its minimal presence in Punjab. Its power base in Sindh has remained unchallenged. In the event of a hung parliament, it can emerge as a power broker. Unlike the two other parties, the PPP does not seem to have any new election message. It still seeks to appeal to the voters on the Bhutto legacy; that will surely not work in any other province. The weakening of the PPP has left a huge gap in national politics that is hard to fill. So it’s back to the hustings despite the political uncertainty gripping the country.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2018