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Try the voters, it might work

October 05, 2012


AS the next election nears, all fears about a postponement are dissipating. What else would explain the spurt in the political activities of different parties?

Are these activities, barely at a canter earlier in the year, at a gallop now? Yes, political opposition to the government in and outside parliament has been robust throughout yet activities now seem to have acquired greater purpose and pace.

The latest International Republican Institute (IRI) survey suggests that Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has surged past Imran Khan’s PTI in the numerically important Punjab province. Nawaz Sharif has greeted the news with alliance-making efforts in Sindh and possibly in Balochistan.

Imran Khan’s response is to march towards South Waziristan to protest against continuing US drone attacks most of which have recently targeted North Waziristan as he believes an anti-US agenda, given the sentiment in the country, will see him through.

Of late, the PML-N and PTI have also had a number of public meetings to galvanise support and build momentum for their eventual election campaign. But the major partner in the governing coalition has done very little in terms of mass contact despite its dismal electoral prospects underlined by IRI.

The closest the PPP co-chairman and President Asif Zardari has come to election-related activity was in a couple of visits to Lahore. Surely, he must know his presence in the fortified Governor’s House is of little use in boosting morale in the party rank and file or its popularity in the province.

Mr Zardari’s other move was a stopover in London to shake hands with MQM leader Altaf Hussain, as the president returned from his address to the UN General Assembly in New York. Mr Hussain later said the two parties discussed contesting the election together.

It was former PML-N and now PTI leader Makhdoom Javed Hashmi who once famously remarked that one needed a PhD to understand Mr Zardari’s politics. Many analysts have echoed Mr Hashmi’s words.

Agreed, coming into power no matter how shakily riding a sympathy wave created by the tragic murder of his spouse Ms Benazir Bhutto and using all his tricks to survive in office, despite poor performance and every manner of conspiracy against his party, may be an achievement.

But winning an election is an altogether different matter. Even for the 2008 election, Mr Zardari hardly campaigned, and failed to reach as many people as Ms Bhutto used to routinely. Whether he truly wanted to have a prolonged mourning period for his spouse or feared a terrorist strike is immaterial.

What matters is that he couldn’t have polled the entire sympathy vote and let some drift away. By contrast, the Sharifs made very good use of the six-week delay in the polls due to Ms Bhutto’s assassination. They campaigned with gusto, vigour.

The result: the PPP didn’t really do as well outside its traditional strongholds, while the PML-N, which decided rather late in the day to take part in the polls, did unexpectedly well, particularly given that its nemesis Gen Musharraf was in power and his PML-Q cohorts enjoyed the perks.

In the next election, the PPP will enter the fray bearing the cross of incumbency, poor performance and misgovernance. Also, there seems to be no attempt under way to reach out to PPP workers let alone the larger electorate.

In Sindh, where the IRI survey still puts the PPP ahead of all other parties, it isn’t clear how the compromises it has had to make to keep the MQM onside would have an impact on its rural supporters.

The local government legislation tabled by the PPP at the behest of the MQM has become so contentious, particularly in an ethnic zero-sum game, that apart from Sindhi nationalist forces, even the ANP’s Karachi-based Pakhtunkhwa Senator Shahi Syed opposes it.

The PPP appears to be as dismissive of this chorus of protest in Sindh as it is of allegations that it has capitulated to the MQM. Is it right in its stance or in for a rude shock? We won’t know till election time.

For the moment, it seems the PPP is relying on the continued loyalty of traditional support bases and in reaching electoral arrangements with parties such as the PML-Q who have ‘electable’ candidates regardless of their standing and collective strength as a political party.

Analysts who have written off the party, say PPP insiders, have not assessed the impact of the Benazir Income Support Programme. In their view, it has cemented the support of the poor voters and particularly women, the main beneficiaries of the programme.

But they concede that landmark legislation pushed through by the PPP on provincial autonomy and such as the one restoring the letter and spirit of the 1973 constitution, and the NFC award, though far-reaching, will hardly register at the ballot box as the benefits are yet to percolate to the masses.

In addition to rural Sindh, in some constituencies in southern Punjab, where the slogan of a separate province and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s sacking by the Supreme Court may have solidified support, the PPP might do well. Elsewhere, the scenario appears bleak.

Historically, the PPP has done well in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, its record in the coalition provincial government isn’t the subject of anybody’s envy and neither is its infighting. That it, along with the ANP, is the only party on the Taliban hit list, means it can’t actively plead its case before the electorate.

Despite having completed its longest stint ever in office, the party doesn’t appear even a shadow of its past self and seems to be approaching its twilight. If the PPP harbours any hope of retaining a populist image, its top leaders will have to have a major change of heart.

They will have to overcome their fear of open spaces and large public gatherings for it is the voting public more than any back-room deal that delivers elections.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.