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Trading horses

October 16, 2012

RECENTLY, a politician from Punjab — after having switched political parties for the second time in 11 months — proclaimed that he’d now found ‘the right path, and the right group of people to tread it with’.

An earlier statement, recorded when he switched parties the first time around, was largely similar. Rather uncreatively, identification of the truth, repentance for past sins, and a newfound desire to serve the electorate, and the country at large, were common themes on both occasions.

This particular example is one of many such instances that we have and will see in the coming period.

Essentially, the constant switching and horse-trading — as it’s commonly called — highlights two important and deeply interconnected facets of Pakistan’s electoral reality.

The first is the lack of entrenchment of political parties, especially at the constituency level, where politics is fragmented along a wide variety of fractures and where party loyalty is only one determinant of voter behaviour.

In fact, contrary to popular beliefs about voting in rural or peri-urban areas, dependent voting — as popularly imagined through the oppressive landlord-peasant relationship — accounts for only a certain, usually insufficient, number of voters.

In most constituencies, and this probably rings truer for Punjab, winning an election is about managing different political-economy and social interests in a way that produces winning coalitions at the constituency level. These interests, usually manifested in local factions known as dharas, are the building blocks of our electoral fabric.

To illustrate this point better, let’s take the example of a typical constituency in central Punjab — a geographical region that is politically significant at the macro level.

An average winning candidate would have secured a minimum of 45,000 votes, obtained from both rural and urban union councils through mobilisation conducted by village-level elites, and local urban actors like traders, contractors and other important businessmen.

These local intermediaries vest faith in a particular candidate not because they think he or she’s a nice person, but because they expect something in return.

Hence the entire construction of a winning constituency-level coalition is dependent on the potential of a candidate to cater to their interests — like construction contracts, tax benefits and government employment.

These interests lead us to the second aspect highlighted by candidate switches, which is that success of electoral politics is by and large measured through its ability to connect with state power.

Those interests briefly mentioned in the preceding paragraphs can only be catered to if a candidate can win an election and hence influence the local bureaucracy, have some impact on provincial and federal transfers — in terms of development spending — and open up favourable pathways for government employment.

When seen together, the choices faced by electorally active politicians are quite complex, even if they do only reflect a very localised view of the world.

A candidate has to gather the support of enough local factions, and at the same time, develop linkages with the state to keep that support in place. When a candidate switches a party, it is usually because the power positions and networks developed by actors of another party offer a greater chance for electoral success.

The reasons as to why the situation is such, i.e. why our political culture evolved (or devolved) to this heavily localised and individualised form are numerous.

For starters, conducting local body or provincial/ national elections on non-party lines, and preventing party activity in the 1960s, 1980s, and the previous decade, has produced a context where most parties have no incentive to organise at the local level.

By putting the individual at the centre of the political process, parties have become clubs for the politically active, as opposed to coherent associations that channel and balance out multiple interests, and produce viable ways to govern.

Secondly, given how the Pakistani state — by which one means the armed forces and the bureaucracy — has held a monopoly over questions of ideology and nationalism, political parties have had little space to produce competing messages that could translate into an actionable party programme.

Barring the PPP’s pro-poor, left-wing thrust during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most parties in Pakistan have been able to do is to channel ethno-linguistic or Islamist sentiment as political agendas.

Not only has this produced an array of mainstream political options undistinguishable in terms of their ideological bends, it has also decimated the importance of ideology in the mind of a voter.

Obviously, there are significant exceptions to this rule. The MQM, for example, has managed to create a political machine that is highly mobilised at the local level, and which can claim to win elections on a party-wide vote bank (as opposed to the effort of an individual candidate).

The PPP in pockets across the country has a segmented vote bank that, if nothing else, associates with a historically experienced image of the party.

What’s important, however, is to recognise that candidate switching and horse-trading form part of a reality that’s been developed over time by interruptions and meddling in the democratic process.

Regardless of how Machiavellian the entire scheme appears, one must remain cognisant that witch-hunts in the name of accountability, often accompanied by hollow shouts of change, cannot produce an ideal political party system.

If the context of electoral activity (local or national) — which has been shaped by military regimes on three separate occasions — has taught our political class only one kind of politics, one can viably posit that the continuation of the current process will provide a different context, and breed a different kind of politics, one that is, hopefully, less narrow, Machiavellian and self-serving in its character.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.