SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE WAY WE VOTE

Published January 21, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

There are multiple theories on voting behaviour. The three most common are the rational choice theory, issue voting and the valence issue concept.

According to the rational choice theory, most voters exercise a high degree of rationality while casting their votes. Issue voting is when a voter prioritises a single issue important to him or her above all else. The valence issue concept suggests that voters cast their ballots to collectively resolve a much wider issue around which a consensus has been developed. 

All three theories can be present during a single election. However, the valence issue concept has had the best chance of dominating a single election. For example, one can posit that, during the 2020 US presidential elections, valence issue voting was the most prominent. The voting in that election was influenced by two sets of competing consensuses around a single issue. To put it simply: one set was looking to protect traditional democracy and the other wanted to sustain the populist democracy peddled by Donald Trump.

But voting patterns in most elections witness all three kinds of behaviours. Let’s take the case of Pakistan, which is set to go to polls on February 8 this year.

Contrary to popular belief, the average Pakistani voter is less interested in voting for political ideologies that appeal to one’s emotions and instead wants to seek out the most rational and pragmatic candidates

For over a decade, I’ve been researching the outcomes of all general elections held in the country since 1970. A major part of the research is the study of voter motivation. According to my findings so far, some of the most rational voting in Pakistan does not appear in the ‘educated’ social classes but among the working and lower-middle classes in the cities, and among peasants and ‘farm labour’ in the rural areas. 

In the West, the theory of rational voting posits that a voter will carefully take out the time to compare multiple manifestos and then decide which party to vote for. In developing democracies such as Pakistan, though, rational voting is closely associated with pragmatism. A voter will determine which party or candidate has the best resources and capability to resolve typical constituency issues such as the availability of running water, better roads, an effective sewerage system, jobs and ‘influence’ in the constituent’s police station.

Mainstream parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have continued to strengthen their prowess in doing this kind of ‘constituency politics.’ When their candidates campaign in constituencies that have large working and lower-middle class populations, they talk more about resolving the mentioned issues than about their parties’ overarching ideologies. 

Pragmatic voting can also be detected in the voting behaviour of the industrial/business classes. Those with large capital and means of production are more likely to vote for ‘pro-business’ parties, such as the PML-N. However, they can be attracted by other parties as well, especially those that have multimillionaires in their midst. This is how the populist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) managed to pull in electoral support from business and industrialist groups, some of whom were once closely associated with the PML-N. 

My findings show that voting behaviour based on ideological concerns is more prevalent in the urban middle-income groups. Awareness about constituency politics is the weakest in this cluster. There is an overarching consensus about certain issues in these groups which can produce valence issue voting, but most of these issues have to do with perceptions of how these groups see the country as a whole and/or what they desire it to be like. 

During the 1977 elections, a centre-right alliance tapped into the ideological yearnings of these groups by promising an ‘Islamic system’ that would enrich the material as well spiritual existence of Pakistanis. In 2018, PTI succeeded in making electoral inroads in these clusters by promising them a Pakistani passport that would be “respected at all airports”, an economy so strong that people from other countries would come here to work, and a state that would lead the ‘Muslim ummah.’ But not all middle income groups in the country cast their ballots based on such yearnings.

Sindhi-speaking middle-income clusters in Sindh mostly vote in tandem with Sindhis from lower-income groups. Both overwhelmingly vote for the PPP. Theirs is a mixture of rational/pragmatic and valence issue voting. The consensus in this context is that the PPP is a bridge between Sindh and the federation that opens up wider economic and political opportunities for the upward mobility of Sindhi-speakers. 

Outside Sindh, the biggest misconception is that the name ‘Bhutto’ alone is good enough to attract votes in the province. This is only partially true. During 15 years of PPP rule in the province, villages became towns and towns have become cities. Also, a robust Sindhi middle class has continued to grow. Reason dictates them to continue casting their ballots for the PPP. 

The only time that the valence issue concept in an election in Pakistan was the overwhelming behaviour was during the 1970 polls. There was widespread consensus on the need for having parliamentary democracy. Parties shaped programmes which could best achieve a democratic system. But after 1977, voters and parties have concentrated more on pragmatic constituency politics. 

Interestingly, the more this took root, the less became the involvement of middle income groups in the electoral process. However, their involvement surged in Sindh’s capital city Karachi from 1988 onwards, mainly due to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The party succeeded in forming a consensus based on Mohajir nationalism. Since most middle-income groups in the city are Mohajir, they voted as a collective for the MQM to safeguard their political and economic interests.

However, a countrywide surge in middle-income voting emerged during the 2018 elections. The PTI appealed to the archetypal ideological yearnings of these groups. But this is also why the party has remained extremely weak in the realm of constituency politics, as it continues to attract the abstract imaginations of this segment. 

Ousted from power in April 2022, PTI is now positioning itself as a ‘victim’. It is attempting to formulate a consensus of collective sympathy for itself among the electorate. But being a highly polarising entity, it has only managed to gain this sympathy from within middle-income groups.

Nevertheless, the party has also conjured support from self-claimed democratic puritans and ‘progressives’ but who are from middle income segments as well. This is natural, because the politics of such puritans too is heavy on ideological rhetoric and emotional appeal and lecturing than on constituency politics. 

Whereas the 2024 polls may keep middle income voters rooted in ideology and emotion, much of the voting is likely to return to being about pragmatic/rational constituency politics.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 21st, 2024

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