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When charisma fails to deliver votes

Published May 22, 2012 09:19am

- Illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com
- Illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com

The corporate genie has granted you innumerable wishes, not just three. It might have dampened the drama, somewhat, but if you are an ardent consumer you will have unlimited fun. It can bring you picture-perfect apples from New Zealand, piping-hot fried chicken from Kentucky (US) and whatever else your heart may desire.

For the urban consumers of politics in Pakistan, generally, and Punjab, particularly, hunger cannot be defined in such terms and earthly edibles therefore guarantee no satisfaction. Dying for some real excitement, they are craving for a new brand named ‘change’ - a serving of spiced up, up-sized elections is what they are demanding. For them, the ‘deal’ comprises a designer political party for starters, corruption-free candidates as appetizers, a fully-principled campaign with some ideological toppings as the main course and for dessert: a raunchy prime minister, who could send the hearts of the world leaders racing. But who could that be? Imran Khan Inc., for Khan is a charismatic personality, who has already delivered two miracles: The Cup and the Hospital. Now our urban middle class wants him to cast the same miraculous spell on politics, and he would finally be canonised as their saint prime minister. Can he do that? That’s the most frequently asked question that every star-gazer, fortune-teller, tarot-card reader is busy answering these days. They all have a counter in the famous ‘media street’ of politics bazaar. I, too, have one. Taking on the role of a gypsy, when I asked the 80-million-voter question, my glass ball retorted that Khan had already been granted two opportunities to get his charisma cashed into political capital. This, I am told, is what followed:

1997: The year Khan launched his party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (1996), the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was at its lowest-ever ebb. Months later, President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari dismissed the government of his own party, following the assassination of the prime minister’s brother. The PPP voter was depressed and dejected. The party had received 7.5 million, 7.8 million and 7.6 million votes respectively in the last three elections held in 1988, 1990 and 1993. Its tally nose-dived to 4.1 million. Arch rivals, first named Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and then Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), however, were unable to capitalise on the situation and PML-N’s tally increased only by 0.7 million (in 1997). The heavy two-third mandate that Nawaz Sharif lifted was not a result of a steep rise in his voters, but to a sharp decline in his rival party’s. PPP’s so-called die-hard voters had either concluded that it was futile to vote and stayed at home on polling day or came out to try other options but PML-N. Jamaat-e-Islami, after a frustrating defeat in 1993 of its new avatar, Pakistani Islamic Front, decided to boycott the 1997 elections. President Leghari banned all types of advertisements (hoardings, posters, banners) to meet the demand of making election campaigns affordable for the proverbial common man.

There could have been no better time than this for a new ‘revolutionary’ party to take the parliament by, ahem, a ‘tsunami.’ Khan probably thought so too. His party put up candidates on 134 of the country’s then 207 National Assembly seats, just behind PPP’s 160 and PML-N’s 176 candidates.

The results, however, were disastrous. PTI could not win even a single seat. None of its candidates could even qualify as a runner-up. Half of its candidates (71) received less than 2,000 votes each. Only two (NA-21, Swat-1 and NA-53, Mianwali-1) surpassed the ten-thousand mark and both seats belonged to Imran Khan. He, in fact, was a candidate from nine constituencies but his only substantial performance was in his ancestral Niazi homeland where he polled 10,716 votes, standing third – so much for the rhetoric against biradari-ism (brotherhood). PTI, in total, received 314,820 votes or 1.65 per cent of the total votes polled in the country.

2002: Maybe the 1997 elections came too early for the nascent party and it did not have sufficient time to prepare itself for the challenge. Five years later in 2002, the situation again was quite favourable for a new player. The General had forced the two main protagonists, Benazir and Nawaz, out of the field. The headless parties were drubbed by small-time players from all sides. The electorate was rejuvenated by a heavy injection of 18 million new voters and most of them were close to 18 years of age. They had seen Khan win them the coveted 1992 Cricket World Cup in their childhood.

PTI was represented by 94 candidates in the 2002 elections. All except one failed miserably. Sixty-seven of them polled less than 2,000 votes each and none except one qualified as runner-up. The party received a total of 242,472 votes, which was 72,000 less than 1997 figure. In terms of percentage, PTI’s share was 0.8 per cent of the total polled votes or half of its previous share in polled votes. Khan himself contested from four constituencies and won on the Niazi area seat of Mianwali. He was the runner-up on a Lahore seat as well. Khan received 101,407 votes on the four seats. Only one other candidate of his party received votes in excess of 10,000. Votes received by the Captain, personally, were 42 per cent of his party’s total votes.

So the hot stud proved to be a dud.

My glass ball concluded with a villainous laughter that charisma earned in a specific sector (sports, film, social work) comes in a particular currency that cannot be freely exchanged into another of your liking, not at least in the political market. If he couldn’t twice, how can he do it the third time? Punjabi urban middle class meanwhile have to make do by just ‘changing’ channels on their new flat screen HD TV sets or maybe also the brand of the potato chips bag in their hand.

*Sources for polling data: The Election Commission of Pakistan and National Assembly Elections in Pakistan, 1970-2008 


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.