The wind vs the people?

Published January 22, 2024
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THE Supreme Court’s decision stripping PTI of its electoral symbol casts another shadow on an already compromised pre-election phase.

It undermines the rights of voters to vote for their preferred party by making the task of candidate identification considerably more difficult. By all accounts, it is a regressive decision which deepens Pakistan’s ongoing derailment of democracy.

Even prior to the decision, no impartial observer would have considered the pre-election phase as fair or ‘level’. The crackdown on workers and candidates already prevents a serious election campaign from being mounted by one party.

However, prior to the Supreme Court decision, there was a distinct possibility that the anonymity of the ballot box, along with clear candidacies in all constituencies, would allow for a proper electoral contest. That prospect, arguably, now stands irrevocably diminished.

Recent polling by Gallup Pakistan shows that PML-N has closed both the voting intention gap and the leadership favourability gap in the all-important province of Punjab. PTI now carries just a two-point lead over the PML-N, narrowing down by 19 points since March 2023. The breakdown shows a near-even split in party preference across central, south, and west Punjab, with PTI commanding a large intention lead in north Punjab, which has 15 of the province’s 141 seats.

Translating sample-based voting intention surveys that cover large regions into constituency-based outcomes is a tricky task. Support bases for parties can be spread out unevenly. Small opinion poll differences can still lead to large differences in seats won based on where party supporters are located. However, this rapid closing of the gap needs to be explained.

In a lopsided playing field such as this one, what chance does an out-of-favour party have?

Conventionally, parties can gain popularity if their time in office leads to material improvements, or their political narrative resonates with the population. The former is unlikely to be the case for the PML-N in the present. Energy and food inflation is still running rampant, and the unprecedented cost of living crisis that it presided over as part of the PDM coalition government is fresh in the memory of poor and middle-class households.

Similarly, the party does not have much of a political narrative of defiance or democratic rights at the moment, either. That ship sailed after the same-page reboot of the last 20 or so months.

Political observers across rural and peri-urban Punjab, instead, indicate that the closing of the popularity gap may have more to do with age-old ‘hawa’; ie, perception of establishment support, rather than any other factor.

The ‘hawa’ is a frequently cited, though under-theorised aspect of Punjab’s electoral politics. At its simplest, it means the en masse alignment of undecided or unaligned voting blocs towards a party based on the expectation that it will be able to form the next government.

This expectation is usually, though not always, tied to the idea that clear-cut backing of the establishment is enough to see a party over the finish line in some form or the other. In 2013, the ‘hawa’ worked on the expectation that the establishment would not prevent an already popular party from forming the government. This allowed N to sweep Punjab at a scale greater than what many initially expected.

The core societal form behind the ‘hawa’ are voting blocs in rural and peri-urban constituencies. As documented by Punjab scholars and observers for decades, parties and their candidates rely on middlemen to mobilise blocs of voters, rather than relying exclusively on direct, mass party connections.

These vote blocs can be along the lines of caste/ biraderi, or village/neighbourhood associations, and are kept afloat through thana-katcheri access and piecemeal provision of basic infrastructure and services. Crucially, these blocs are how turnout is managed on election day.

The importance of such middlemen rises and falls depending on the wider political context. In some elections, such as 2008, the national mood may be sufficient to sway voters, regardless of which way the wind is perceived to be blowing. But even then, their role in shaping turnout remains instrumental.

The indication coming from field observers over the past couple of weeks is that these integral middlemen are consolidating support behind seasoned PML-N candidates. Direct and costly party-to-voter contact is absent.

Instead, their candidates are busy meeting local blocs and offering favours and public works projects as enticements. This is taking place alongside a continued crackdown on PTI candidates, who are being prevented from holding similar meetings.

In a lopsided playing field such as this one, what chance does an out-of-favour party have? In other words, does the ‘hawa’ make the result a foregone conclusion?

I would wager that despite all efforts of ‘curation’, ballot box dynamics always offer a sizable chance for throwing up surprises. In 2002, an incumbent (now court-certified) military dictator oversaw elections, in which blessings were showered on a hand-picked king’s party. Yet, the regime needed extensive polling day rigging, and significant floor crossing in the post-election phase, to produce an extremely thin majority in the National Assembly.

In the current context, a close contest would need three things from the PTI: timely communication of candidate identities, the narrative-based mobilisation of unattached, party voters through social media, and a concerted election-day push for a higher turnout, especially in central Punjab.

The last one in particular is key because lower turnout (through disillusionment or voter suppression) is likely to favour those parties that bring voters out through middlemen-led blocs.

These elections are not taking place in 2002. The list of unknown variables — newly registered voters, social media influence, strength of and growth in party identity — is extensive. Such variables were in comparative infancy in 2018. And they may yet have a larger impact on this particular election.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

X: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2024

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