Is the party over?

Published June 12, 2023
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

WHAT is the PTI’s electoral future after recent events? The answer in the short term, unfortunately for its remaining party leaders, depends more on the military leadership than on any other factor. A recent ISPR press release laden with words such as ‘noose’ and ‘inimical’ suggests that more pain is around the corner, especially for Imran Khan. The campaign of hounding party cadres at all levels is also continuing unabated, resulting in an exodus of various ticket-holders and some high-profile leaders. Is this a sign that the party is over?

Surviving a concerted campaign seeking to dismantle the party is not straightforward. A draconian step such as banning the party outright still seems to be on the cards. Short of that, however, the impact of this ongoing campaign on the party’s election chances rests on at least two factors. These include internal cohesion in the party and the continued ability to speak to concerns of different sections of the electorate.

As far as internal cohesion is concerned, the first stage of splintering has already taken place with a coterie of infamous ‘electables’ from rural Punjab congregating in a new king’s party. Regardless of what is said, the aim of this new party is not to win an election. It is to act as a spoiler: reducing the candidate-centric vote for the PTI in some constituencies, aligning that vote with the PDM parties, and wherever successful, acting as a pressure group or a coalition-maker in the post-election dispensation. As the establishment’s target is to keep PTI below 133 directly elected seats whenever elections are held, this remains the first plank of that strategy.

Losing strong candidates is a blow to the party’s chances because they command a reasonable following in their constituencies and have the ability to finance their own election campaigns. Yet it does not necessarily signal the end. Given Pakistan’s history of ups and downs as far as electoral prospects are concerned, each constituency has four to five contenders who can be on the lookout for a party ticket. In many constituencies some of these contenders are probably already aligned with the PTI given the gradual entrenchment of a two-party model, especially in Punjab since 2013.

Losing strong candidates is a blow to the PTI’s chances, yet it does not necessarily signal the end.

Additionally, constituencies also have genuine party workers (such as at the UC nazim level) who are looking for their chance at a national or provincial seat. This is more true for peri-urban and urban constituencies than for outright rural ones, but even in the latter, increasing affinity with parties and better party identification can open space for newer entrants. Somewhat ironically, a dismantling campaign can actually help reveal the true strength of a party’s political capacity, as both the PPP and PML-N learnt in the 1980s and the 2000s respectively. Whether the PTI has that capacity in seats where incumbents are departing remains to be seen.

The internal cohesion challenge also has one other aspect: in periods of duress and defection, parties also run the risk of infighting over strategy and a share of the limelight. With positions opening up at the top as some leaders depart, others may scramble for a bigger share or for more proximity with the leader.

The second factor shaping the party’s immediate electoral future is its ability to speak to people’s concerns. Here the PTI seems to be in much better shape. Khan’s narrative of a conspiracy and injustice still seems to resonate with core voters, even if some of the initial enthusiasm has tapered down in the aftermath of May 9. PTI voters — ie, those who simply identify with the leader and the party — will come out to cast their votes regardless of who is on the ballot. Simultaneously, presiding over an economy in its worst shape in decades will induce greater apathy among voters of the other parties. A closer analysis of by-election results shows that the difference between PTI and the rest had less to do with voters switching sides, and more to do with one set of voters coming out enthusiastically and the other set staying home.

With inflation showing no signs of easing up, and levels of public scepticism at establishment meddling in political affairs remaining extremely high, the PTI is still in a better position than its competitors to capitalise on these concerns. This is partly why despite the crackdown in the preceding few months, the general impression is still that the party will be in a strong position if and when elections are held.

The ongoing period of upheaval also opens up new ways of speaking to the voter in different parts of the country. We can see this already in KP, where the PTI’s rhetoric is now bringing in some aspects of ethnic identity as well. The crisis is partly being framed as an injustice against the most popular party in the province, which implies that the political rights of Pakhtuns are being violated. In the coming months, it is possible that the PTI moves in more aggressively to fill the gap left since the decline of the ANP and the continued targeting of the PTM.

In an election that’s even moderately free, voters can have an outsized impact regardless of what the establishment may be planning. We have seen this time and again in the past that the best laid plans can be waylaid if some sanctity of the ballot is maintained. The anger of the electorate is what the PTI is likely counting on as well. Yet there is one major vulnerability — this anger and its direct appeal is largely channelled by the party leader around whom the entire party is built. If a minus-one formula is successfully implemented, then all bets and all prospects could very well be off.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2023

Opinion

Editorial

X post facto
Updated 19 Apr, 2024

X post facto

Our decision-makers should realise the harm they are causing.
Insufficient inquiry
19 Apr, 2024

Insufficient inquiry

UNLESS the state is honest about the mistakes its functionaries have made, we will be doomed to repeat our follies....
Melting glaciers
19 Apr, 2024

Melting glaciers

AFTER several rain-related deaths in KP in recent days, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority has sprung into...
IMF’s projections
Updated 18 Apr, 2024

IMF’s projections

The problems are well-known and the country is aware of what is needed to stabilise the economy; the challenge is follow-through and implementation.
Hepatitis crisis
18 Apr, 2024

Hepatitis crisis

THE sheer scale of the crisis is staggering. A new WHO report flags Pakistan as the country with the highest number...
Never-ending suffering
18 Apr, 2024

Never-ending suffering

OVER the weekend, the world witnessed an intense spectacle when Iran launched its drone-and-missile barrage against...