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PTI impact on politics

January 23, 2012

THE year 2011 saw the emergence of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) as a strong challenger to the traditionally dominant political parties. So far as affecting attitudes and behaviours of political actors and the public are concerned, the ‘PTI phenomenon’ is real and tangible.

Most noticeable is the PTI’s impact on political involvement of the youth and in turn on the way the more established political parties conduct their business. Such impact may not say much about the PTI’s electoral prospects but it does represent a paradigm shift of sorts in Pakistani politics.

Perhaps for the first time since Z.A. Bhutto’s PPP rose to power, large segments of Pakistan’s young generation seem genuinely interested in politicking. For over two decades, Pakistan has been dominated by largely insular parties which provided little space to any new actors lacking a base in the traditional patronage networks, let alone to the average young member of society. Moreover, none of them had a popular appeal exciting enough to attract the youth in any case.

Resultantly, as late as 2010, national surveys were showing a rather depressing paradox in the attitudes of the youth: they desired improvement in their country’s fortunes; the majority agreed that better political leadership was critical for this; and yet, an overwhelming majority was not interested in playing any serious political role to affect positive change.

Imran Khan has always been popular among the youth but the perception, recently established, that the party is now a serious contender has managed to galvanise large numbers of youth with a sense of purpose (whether one agrees with PTI’s message is irrelevant to this discussion). Most critically, this has created a dent in the overwhelming sense of despondency that had begun to characterise society, especially the youth.

The point is not to give the impression that the youth are flocking towards PTI only. In fact, from the point of view of democratic evolution, that is not as relevant as the fact that Khan’s youth appeal has forced the traditional parties to play catch-up; suddenly the established parties have begun to strengthen and promote their youth wings. This trend is likely to continue; it will eventually cement a substantive role for youth in political activism in general.

Linked to this, the youth have introduced social media as a major factor in national politics for the first time. Virtually absent from the tool kit of the traditional parties and often seen as irrelevant to patronage-based political campaigns in a country with low literacy and limited access to social media, the theory has been turned on its head by the PTI.

While it is too early to tell if the use of Facebook, Twitter and SMS technology would have much impact on voting behaviour, it has already shown to be a potent PR mechanism for the PTI. But again, more crucial is the fact that the PTI’s edge has forced the other parties to rethink their indifference towards these tools. Already, politicians from the traditional parties are beginning to follow the model; any regular Twitter user can testify to the fairly long and impressive list of non-PTI politicians who have joined the social media scene in the last three months.

Then recent decisions by a few high-profile politicians to ditch their parties for the PTI has left the leadership of established parties more vulnerable at the same time that it has encouraged the rank and file of these outfits to seek greater say in internal decision-making. This is ironic as the PTI itself has little to show in terms of internal democracy. In fact, it has the least organised party structure and Khan remains even more iron-fisted than other Pakistani political leaders when it comes to party decisions.

Nonetheless, the plausible threat of attrition within traditional parties — thanks to the PTI’s rise — is forcing their leadership to consider moving towards somewhat more inclusive decision-making. This will begin to open up more opportunities for vertical movement for all, including the youth.

There are certain negatives attached to the PTI’s rise as well.

For one, while it has provided hope, an election message built around instant positive change is dangerous. Irrespective of the PTI’s sloganeering, the fact is that Imran Khan has no magical solutions available for the problems that affect the common citizen today.

Hypothetically speaking, even if he does take power, chances are that Pakistan will not look much different 30, 60, 90, 180 or even 360 days into his tenure. This is because the PTI seems to have no concrete policy vision that is any more coherent than that of other parties and also because Khan will have to deal with weakened, and in some cases broken, institutional structures and the same vested interests that have defended the status quo successfully time and time again.

Add to this that the PTI will be hamstrung by its total absence in the Senate for the first half of its tenure and will thus be reliant on support of the traditional parties to force any structural changes.

In Pakistan’s case, shattered expectations could mean more than just disappointment among the masses. As dismayed as the general public is with the performance of the present civilian government, and given our past experiences, one risks an abrupt rejection of the democratic system as such. Regular references by politicians and analysts alike — this is amplified by the youth in social media outlets — to the next election as the ‘last chance’ for democracy underscore this danger. Perhaps a more realistic, toned-down narrative of hope needs to be promoted to check unrealistic expectations.

Finally, the PTI’s populist electoral message when it comes to foreign policy and terrorism-related issues will re-incentivise a ‘race to the right’ among political parties. Outfits like the PPP and PML-N which have up to now presented fairly moderate, centrist policy positions on most foreign policy and domestic issues will have to rethink their strategies — they are likely to move towards more nationalistic stances themselves — as elections near. The politically active youth will find themselves consuming more populism, more efforts to blame our problems on outsiders like the US, and rather naïve views about how to deal with right-wing extremism.

It is difficult to judge what all this will amount to in the short to medium term. Regardless, what is clear is that large segments of the youth seem more politically involved than they have been for some time. This cannot but be a net positive in the long run.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.