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In search of winners

November 30, 2011

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NO sport can match the glorious or not so glorious uncertainties of cricket more than a general election. One of the more entertaining features of political poker is the migratory birds’ search for the likely winner’s nest, which sometimes takes the form of inter-party traffic.

By tradition, political parties in Pakistan acquire maximum value in the weeks and months preceding a general election. The rush of applicants for party tickets to contest election is like heady wine for leaders of political outfits. Wholly welcome are offerings of ticket fees, donations and nazranas by candidates. The larger the number of applicants for a party’s tickets, the higher its leaders’ expectations of gaining victory and power.

The converse is also true. If a party receives a small number of requests for its ticket, it knows that things are not moving in its favour. In a way the rate at which various parties attract new devotees on the eve of an election indicates the direction in which the wind is blowing.

Most of those seeking fame, power and riches by gaining an elective office have a single objective — to find a likely winner’s bandwagon and jump on it as early as possible — for securing a vantage seat. The game originated in the colonial period and by now the professional election-makers have developed a whole set of tests to predict the outcome of electoral contests.

The most frequently tried method of picking out election winners beforehand is by reading the mind and inclination of the sovereign establishment. For instance, by 1945 the Unionists in Punjab had come to realise that Pakistan was going to be created sooner rather than later. Many of them made haste to transfer their loyalties to the Muslim League, the party they had despised for years, and reaped hefty benefits.

Another method to anticipate poll results is to go by a party’s/candidate’s crowd-pulling capacity, though the crowds may also be following their reading of the sovereign establishment’s will. Sometimes both measures are employed in conjunction.

The provincial elections held in Pakistan (1951-1954) reveal a mixed pattern. In Punjab, the Daultana-led Muslim League managed, with the help of the bureaucracy, to give the impression that it would easily trounce the Mamdot-led Jinnah Muslim League. The tactic paid off. In the then NWFP, the crowd-pulling opposition groups were not unnerved by the establishment’s backing for Khan Abdul Qaiyum Khan and the latter had to resort to ‘special methods’ to create a majority. In East Bengal, the incumbent party itself wrote the script of its rout by putting off elections for three years and failing to surpass or cheat the crowd-gatherers.

The elections (in West Pakistan, as the East Bengal model is not relevant now) of the 1970s are worth studying even today. In 1970, the establishment bought the theory that Bhutto’s crowd-pulling capacity was not going to be translated into triumph at the polling booths. This view was reinforced by the intelligence agencies who asserted that no party was likely to win a majority. Most of the sitting members of the assemblies, especially in Punjab and Sindh, went by the establishment’s assessment only to discover that they had backed the wrong horse on a bad tip. They retraced their steps in 1977 and joined the Bhutto flock but in vain as they later on discovered at the time of a split in the establishment.

In 1988, the professional candidates concluded that the establishment had not decided to thwart Benazir Bhutto’s accession to power. We found a perceptible increase in the lines of people who wished to join the PPP.

In the elections of 1990 and 1993, it was relatively easier to predict the losers at least. These elections followed premature dissolution of the national/provincial assemblies and one could surmise that the party dismissed by the establishment was not going to be allowed to come back.

The 1985 and 2002 polls were organised by military regimes with a definite purpose in mind and therefore do not count as reflections of the popular will. The 2008 election was different and the establishment relaxed its conditions to some extent but revised its 1970 script by taking active interest in securing a divided House.

While the professional election-wallahs may or may not be correct in their assessment of the establishment’s preferences, the movement of politicians with connections from one platform to another almost always offers an accurate indication of its choices.

However, all parties do not keep their pens open for migratory birds. Some claim to field only ideologically committed candidates. They do not look for likely winners outside their own following and are prepared to stay out of power. But so far such parties have failed to dominate the electoral landscape.

It is too early to say which of the methods known to pollsters for picking out the winners in the coming general election will yield the most accurate forecast. Quite a few imponderables make speculation difficult — such as the system’s vulnerability to the establishment’s manipulation, the relative electoral weights of the different sections of society and the impact of accidents during the run-up to the polls.

The slogan of people’s yearning for change is often variously interpreted by different interest groups. To some change means only removal of the incumbent figures; to others it implies rejecting all of the main contenders; and there may be some for whom change only means their own installation on the throne. The election pundits will do well to wait for quite some time to announce results before the votes have been cast.

Meanwhile, one may enjoy the spectacle political journeymen are offering if it is possible to gloss over the realisation that the basis of a new convert’s allegiance to a party, except for personal profit, has become meaningless.