Why ‘electables’?

Updated June 24, 2018

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THE PTI’s seemingly wholesale embrace of the practice has cast fresh light on a perennial problem in the country’s politics.

The selection of so-called electables in numerous constituencies across the country as PTI candidates in the upcoming general election has led to discontent and protest among the party’s older members.

Certainly, it is a party’s right to select whichever candidate it prefers, and the length of affiliation with a political party cannot be the sole criterion on which tickets are handed out.

But the return of electables and the rise of independents are of concern from a democratic perspective.

The PTI is far from the only major political party to have adopted the strategy. Indeed, the PML-N has also showed a preference for electables in a number of instances.

The awkward juxtaposition of the previous PML-N government putting former army chief and dictator retired Gen Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason while placing many politicians who joined Mr Musharraf’s regime in leadership positions in the PML-N has rightly drawn criticism.

By embracing the culture of electables, major political parties diminish the role of the party and negate the very idea of ideology in politics.

In the best-case scenario, as the PTI has argued in recent days, fielding a large number of electables does not automatically mean the senior leadership will compromise on the party’s values and agenda if it is elected to power.

While electables will emphasise patronage politics at the constituency level — the ability to remain a formidable constituency candidate depends on distributing patronage to supporters — they may not have a veto over a party’s policy, governance and reform agendas.

But no political party can reasonably claim to be strengthening its organisational structure while allowing large-scale lateral entry into the party. Weak political parties tend to weaken democracy as all party decision-making is concentrated in a few hands at the top.

That may suit the party leaders, especially those who wield hereditary power, but it tends to weaken ties to the local party member or activist and thwarts democratic debate inside political parties.

As has become apparent, democratic continuity will not automatically translate into stronger democratic institutions. Successive parliaments have attempted to strengthen the democratic process and institutions via, for example, the 18th Amendment and Fata reforms.

It is too late for political parties to change course ahead of the general election next month when it comes to fielding a disproportionate number of electables and likely accommodating independent candidates.

But the next parliament should take up the issue of electables and a frank debate should be had among the country’s political leadership.

Floor crossing and horse trading were dealt with after the destructive role those practices played in the 1990s.

Surely, as Pakistan prepares to enter an unprecedented era of democratic continuity, the problem of electables can also be addressed.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018