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IT has been seemingly an eternal truth in Sindh: outside the urban centres in the south of the province, the PPP will romp to electoral victory. On the few occasions that the PPP has been pegged back in its rural and semi-urban Sindh strongholds, a familiar alliance of anti-PPP electables has been assembled to artificially suppress the PPP’s seat count.

But a fortnight before the general election, the PPP’s aim of extending its political control in Sindh, including picking up some seats dominated for decades by the MQM in Karachi and Hyderabad, could be facing a triple threat. The consolidation of the anti-PPP vote in Sindh under the banner of the Grand Democratic Alliance could chip away at the PPP’s expected seat count. If a perception takes hold among voters that the PPP’s path to power may be blocked, the electoral prospects of GDA and its allies could surge in the final days of the campaign.

In addition, 10 consecutive years of PPP governance in the province may have created simmering popular discontent that the Zardari clan’s political deal-making and patronage politics may be unable to fully counter. And now, with a financial dragnet being deployed against alleged banking and business allies of Asif Zardari, the PPP could face a difficult post-election environment, with PPP leaders suggesting privately that the crackdown could be an attempt to dictate which way the PPP cohort in the National Assembly votes for prime minister.

Yet, those factors are not expected to radically alter the political order in Sindh. “The starting point for Sindh politics is two factors,” Sohail Sangi, a veteran journalist, said. “People vote for the PPP because, one, the PPP, starting from the days of ZAB, is seen as willing to fight at the centre (of the federation) for Sindh and, two, the PPP can come to power at the centre.”

The absence of an organised, province-wide political opposition to the PPP has been a further advantage for the party, one that temporary anti-PPP electoral alliances have been unable to overcome in the past. The Pir Pagara-led GDA is the latest iteration of anti-PPP alliances in Sindh.

Grand Democratic Alliance

Such is the dominance of the PPP in Sindhi-speaking rural and semi-urban parts of the province that, of the 37 directly elected National Assembly seats outside Karachi and Hyderabad in the province, a good showing for the GDA may be to win 10 or fewer NA seats, according to political analysts.

However, Murtaza Jatoi, a leading member of the GDA and a formidable candidate in his constituency in Naushahro Feroze district, suggested that the GDA and sundry allies in Sindh arrayed against the PPP, including the PTI, can win at least 15 or 16 directly elected National Assembly seats.

Ayaz Latif Palijo, a fiery opponent of the PPP from Hyderabad and secretary general of the GDA, is also upbeat. Running through a list of potential winning GDA candidates from Badin in the south to Ghotki district in the north and candidates in districts from Thatta to Larkana who can give the PPP a strong challenge without necessarily winning, Palijo argued that the traditional voting paradigm in Sindh is set to change.

Public frustration at endemic corruption and poor service delivery will cause voters to turn away from the PPP, according to the GDA secretary general. “There used to be a steady pro-PPP and anti-PPP vote in every constituency,” Palijo said. “But 10 years of the PPP calamity has changed how voters, especially relatively younger voters, think about politics. How can it not? The disaster the PPP has created is the people’s reality.”

Murtaza Jatoi also cited voter anger as favouring the GDA candidates in 2018: “They (the PPP) have been selling jute bags for 10 years. Sugar cane was a turning point this year. Peasants were hit, small farmers were hit and a group with 17 sugar mills did well. The people know who owns the 17 sugar mills.”

If the anti-PPP rhetoric is familiar, it could gain traction with some voters in 2018 for several reasons. “People say that the waderas are all with us. But the PPP has been in power for 10 years and now they’re all with them. And the new contractor class,” a reference to local influentials bidding for government contracts, “is with them, too. The people know this,” Jatoi said.

He continued: “Look, the old days of waderas coming to us with two, three, five thousand votes is over. Now, we deal with people with maybe 100 or 200 votes and people are vocal about their demands.”

Both Palijo and Jatoi mentioned the influence of social media as a new electoral factor in 2018. “It wasn’t there before, not even in 2013. Now, complaints and voter anger go viral and younger people think they can spark the next Tahrir Square,” Palijo said.

Patronage

Amidst flickers of change, the pull of traditional patronage politics remains strong in Sindh. Murtaza Jatoi credited a host of government projects, running into billions of rupees, that he was able to bring to Naushahro Feroze as a federal minister in the previous government for maintaining his strong position in his constituency.

“The prime minister (Khaqan Abbasi) announced a Rs3bn package for Naushahro Feroze last year. Development work was blocked from April 1 this year instead of after the caretaker government took over and there have been some delays, but the people know I can deliver,” Jatoi said.

There is also speculation that the GDA is the latest establishment proxy in Sindh, an alliance cobbled together primarily to keep the PPP in check. Ayaz Palijo was dismissive: “It’s the PPP that’s been making all the deals with the establishment. If we had establishment support, the caretaker government wouldn’t be doing the PPP’s bidding nor would all the PPP’s projects be continuing.”

He added angrily, “This establishment talk is nonsense. Look at our members. Who put our backs against the wall? Who has damaged us and attacked us and injured us and undermined us? It’s the PPP. Why wouldn’t we oppose them?”

For critics of both the PPP and the GDA, the sparring between the two camps has only reiterated that they are both part of the status quo. The GDA welcoming candidates who have fallen out with the PPP — such as the Mirzas in Badin and the Mahars in Ghotki — and the PPP fielding candidates who have been part of anti-PPP alliances in recent elections — such as the Shirazis in Thatta — suggest that the rules of power politics and the sway of electables continue to dominate.

Ali Kazi, publisher of the influential Kawish newspaper and a recent entrant to electoral politics as founder of the Tabdeeli Pasand Party, cast the dominant political options in Sindh as a choice between bad and worse: “If the GDA does win more than a handful of seats, they’ll think it’s because of their good work. The same goes for the PTI. But it will really be because of the dismal PPP performance. The GDA, like the alliances before it, is not a real alternative to the PPP. The people of Sindh know the GDA means the status quo.”

PPP still dominant

Slight concerns within the PPP ranks that pockets of popular discontent with the party’s decade-long rule in the province could turn into a groundswell have been allayed as campaigning has picked up across the province. The formidable PPP electoral machine is up and running and is expected to deliver as it usually does

“At the national level, it should be like 2013, up or down one or two seats,” Naveed Qamar said. Qamar’s constituency in Tando Mohammad Khan is considered a safe seat, though he acknowledged that while the pull of the PPP remains strong across rural Sindh, individual candidates, particularly at the provincial level, are facing more questions from voters than ever.

A first election as candidate for Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and his recent campaign tour of Sindh may also bolster the Bhutto brand. Allies of the young PPP chairman described a campaign stop in Pir Jo Goth, the ancestral hometown of Pir Pagara in Khairpur district, as an indication of the enduring draw of the Bhutto name in Sindh. Senator Mustafa Khokhar, who is accompanying Bhutto-Zardari on his national tour, said of the visit to Pir Jo Goth: “It was surprising. We arrived at around three in the morning. People had advised Bilawal against going there at all, saying there could be a security situation, but it was jampacked. People in the thousands turned up.”

But Sohail Sangi and other analysts caution that while the impact of Bilawal’s campaigning may not be negligible, it is unlikely to be significant. “Everyone can see that Bilawal doesn’t really have any power. He sat on the board (selecting PPP candidates), but the nominees were all what anyone could have predicted,” Sangi said.

Privately, PPP leaders admit that as party candidates have turned to campaigning, they have been faced with voters complaints about the lack of potable water, irrigation problems and demands for better health facilities. There are also widespread allegations that politically connected sugar mill owners have once again benefited from the sugar cane harvest at the expense of small farmers.

Yet, as the Zardari camp in the PPP is once again potentially being enmeshed in legal trouble, there are fresh concerns about the electoral outcome. “It’s probably too late for a major swing at the national level,” a PPP leader speaking on the condition of anonymity said. “But at the provincial level, there is a possibility that a GDA, PTI, PSP and maybe MQM alliance could be used to shut us out. This whole election is about a gun to the head of certain political forces.”

But barring a dramatic late shift or widespread manipulation, the eternal truth in Sindh politics will likely prevail once again: outside the urban centres in the south of the province, the PPP will romp to electoral victory.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2018

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