Lemonade elections

Updated May 06, 2018


THEY say that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Our political class has accumulated many lemons of late, and will need a steady supply of lemonade come the general elections. For the first time in our history, elections will be held in the monsoon season ie in late July or the middle of sawan according to our desi calendar. It is seen as the season of romantic union, or lamented as a time of separation from the beloved. For our political class it is going to be a difficult test of grit and wits.

It is extremely hot and humid at that time of the year in Pakistan. Average temperatures in July are just a notch or two lower than in June, the hottest month when the mercury goes past the dreaded 50 degrees Celsius mark in many parts of southern Pakistan. But the moist monsoon winds that cross our eastern borders in early July also bring the heaviest rainfall of the year.

In fact, for many areas of the country, this is the only time when their water reservoirs are replenished. Rain does lower temperatures and makes the weather pleasant but that only lasts for a few hours. As soon as the scorching sun returns, its interplay with high levels of humidity results in the most suffocating, dehydrating days of the year.

The polling day for nine general elections held from 1970 to 2008 fell between October and March. The previous election, held on May 11, 2013, was, for the first time, out of this cool time zone. Voters’ endurance test, as they wait in long queues in late July, will become harder this time.

There is no better time for voters to judge the PML-N than the month of July.

Many polling stations may not be able to offer shade to the queues, making the voters’ ordeal more torturous. Get ready for news of voters fainting in polling stations. This might have a negative impact on the turnout.

The contest is, however, expected to be more competitive, and candidates will have to put in extra effort to bring their voters out. Their camps will need to be well stocked with cold drinks, or a flowing sabeel of lemonade.

The official election campaign period will start sometime after Eid in mid-June and daytime temperatures will be at their peak throughout the election period. Expect lots of night-time jalsas and corner meetings.

July, however, has the potential of being worse. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab experienced their heaviest rains in late July 2010. The resulting floods killed 1,700 people across the country and affected a whopping 18 million; with the total loss to homes and infrastructure estimated at $9.7 billion.

The good news, however, is that most global weather centres are forecasting a normal monsoon. The global climate driver El Nino is moving from negative to neutral position ending chances of drought. Apparently, there is a chance of rainfall being 20 pc above or below the average, a 55pc chance of the normal amount of precipitation; and a 5pc chance of excessive rains. However, this forecast is for the entire subcontinent for the four-month period from June to September, and ignores regional and monthly variations. The chances of rain sweeping jalsas and/or polling will remain. And unlike cricket, there is no Duckworth Lewis formula to estimate election results in such situations!

July and August are also months when electricity demand touches its annual peak; power shortfalls have resulted in up to 14 hours of daily load-shedding in the past years. A major election promise of the incumbent government was that it would end the power shortage. The energy sector has gone through many improvements since then, with a number of new power plants coming online.

There can be no better time for the voters to judge the PML-N on the basis of its promise than the month of July. If the shortfall is met, or is at least not worse than before, it will go in the ruling party’s favour. Otherwise, it will be for the opposition to highlight the failure of their rival.

Whatever the impact on the elections, the country’s farmers will be praying for rains at that time. The arduous process of planting rice saplings would have been completed and paddies would be in need of standing water. More importantly, post-harvest processes for the wheat crop would have been concluded; this is likely to have an impact on the electoral discourse.

Wheat is Pakistan’s biggest crop, covering 78pc of the total Rabi season crop area. Punjab’s contribution to the total wheat production in the country is about 75pc and during the Rabi season a third of the province’s geographical area grows this crop. An estimated 16m voters in Punjab, or a fourth of its total 60m, belong to wheat-farming families.

Wheat is also the only crop for which the government annually sets a support price and then proactively intervenes in the market to ensure that farmers get this price.

Food departments of Punjab and Sindh and the federal corporation, Passco, are already making preparations for buying the current harvest directly from the farmers at the support price of Rs1,300 per 40 kg.

This is, indeed, a challenging task in terms of operations, logistics, storage and finances. The global market situation in recent years has made it even tougher. The international price for wheat currently is just Rs950 per 40kg, which makes it unattractive for private traders to buy local wheat. This has left the government as the sole buyer in the market and it has to stretch itself to buy the entire tradable surplus.

Then the stocks position makes procurement drives even more strenuous. The country has been producing surplus wheat for the past many years and as a result the government stores are brimming with almost a year’s worth of stocks. Yet governments have to buy the new crop as they cannot afford to disappoint the farmers weeks before polling. The farmers’ experience at the procurement centres will be the last important test of the government’s claim of good governance.

The farmers’ prayers for rain during the current wheat season might not have been fully heard but the timing of the election 2018 is surely a godsend for them.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2018