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Pakistan's twisting, turning politicians


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Pakistani politician Arbab Khizer Hayat speaks during an interview with AFP in Peshawar. — Photo by AFP

PESHAWAR: For politicians in most countries, switching parties is a once-in-a-career move made only after careful thought. But in Pakistan, changing sides to gain advantage is standard practice.

Since entering politics in 1996, Arbab Khizer Hayat has switched his party allegiance 14 times, and he is far from alone. Dozens of others have done so and as the May 11 general election approaches, the trend is increasing.

The hallway of Hayat's huge mansion in the northwestern city of Peshawar is adorned with pictures of him with former president Ghulam Ishaq. And former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. And former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Hayat, a member of a landowning family with a long history in politics, has gone from the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former cricketer Imran Khan to Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).

He has managed to stick with the PML-N, currently favourites for the election, for the past two years.

“When I went back to the PML-N, Nawaz rang me and joked: 'How long are you staying with us this time?'” said Hayat, 38, with an infectious grin.

The phenomenon of politicians jumping ship is so familiar that Pakistanis have a nickname for them — “lota”, the Urdu word for a round-bottomed water jug that can rock in all directions without falling over.

Hayat is quite candid about his changeability.

“Politics is not about ideas, but about power. When politicians see a party becoming popular they want to join it,” he said.

In Pakistan's stratified, semi-feudal society, patronage and kinship play a huge role and dominate over ideology in politics.

Candidates choose the banner under which they have the best chance of being elected, while parties court powerful individuals in areas where the person's name and influence can secure more votes than any party.

“We have two types of politicians. Half are loyal to parties, so if they are right wing or progressive, left wing, they are very loyal to the ideology, but the other half is opportunist,” said analyst Raza Rumi.

“Rich people who makes lots of money, people who own land or who are influential, they choose the party, a ticket where they are likely to win.” This back-and-forth movement between parties has accelerated in recent weeks as the party leaderships hand out electoral “tickets”, naming their candidates for the national assembly, the lower house of parliament.

Nabeel Gabol, elected to the assembly in the troubled Lyari neighbourhood of Karachi, switched to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the southern metropolis' dominant party, shortly before parliament dissolved in March.

He will stand for both Lyari and an MQM seat in May. It is common for politicians in Pakistan to contest multiple seats. There have also been moves by some MPs from the outgoing PPP to join the PML-N as its stock has risen.

“We had a lot of expectations that the PPP will be able to address the problems being faced by Balochistan but despite our repeated requests they did not take it seriously,” said Lashkari Raisani, an MP from southwestern Balochistan province who switched from the PPP to PML-N last month.

According to a recent Gallup poll, PML-N will win the most number of seats at the ballot box next month, but like the PPP in 2008, not enough to secure an outright majority.

“In a country where it's sometimes hard to trust opinion polls, the 'lotas' are a good indicator of trends,” a Western diplomat said.

In this game of electoral musical chairs, those who cannot get their hands on a ticket from one of the big parties run as independents or try to sidle up to one of the emerging parties such as PTI.

Arbab is sitting out the election this time as he says he does not have the money to pay campaign expenses, salaries, media advertising and food for meetings. But he hopes to become a political adviser if his party is elected.

“It's my last party, I won't leave and I'll even stand in elections for them next time,” he said, hoping to have finally picked the right side.

Comments (9) Closed

Akram Apr 10, 2013 09:24am
these lotas are essentially part of the problem. they are people with no ideology other than to benefit themselves and their relatives. Thus they are dead weight, with no answers or any motivation to do anything for their constituents. This is feudalism at work. The sooner political parties dump these people in the dustbin of history as the developed world has done. The faster Pakistan will emerge with better leaders who are motivated by doing things for their constituents, rather than simply filling their own pockets.
ZAK Apr 10, 2013 10:23am
We need to throw such politicians in dust bin. All we need is to vote for PTI.
Agha Ata (USA) Apr 10, 2013 01:08pm
Are they proud of it? They should be ashamed of it.
AJ Apr 10, 2013 02:39pm
These Lotas are part of the problem and people accepting these Lotas all the time are part of the problem. Pakistani Political model is based on a very simple ideology
Osman Khalid Apr 10, 2013 03:34pm
@ZAK: PTI is also having many lotas. Hasmi, Shah Mahmood
Kdspirited Apr 10, 2013 06:11pm
Vote PTI. Baki sub Khalas
Arshad Patel,Ohio,USA Apr 10, 2013 10:41pm
Dear Mr. Akram, The history of Pakistan's politics is FULL OF LOTAS, most of them has no base ( Be-painay ke lotay ), they just look for their own benefits and nothing else. But we have a bigger problem then just these individual LOTAS. All most every political party by itself is a LOTA, whether its PPP, MQM, PML-N, PML-Q, JUI, JI, JUP, ANP or name any other party, from time to time all of them have changed their coalition partners/parties for no other reason than to get power or stay in the power. This is the final chance that GOD has provided us to get rid of all the LOTAS and start a new chapter without these selfish and ever tumbling LOTAS ( INDIVIDUALS AND THE PARTIES ) otherwise the future of our dear country is very bleak and that of our new generation is completely DARK GOD BLESS PAKISTAN..... PAKISTAN ZINDABAD.
Rasool Bakhsh Apr 10, 2013 11:14pm
It Kolhe, not Kohli. I wish her all the luck in the world.
Malick Apr 11, 2013 01:53am
PTI AND PMLN, none will get the Priemer chair, PM from PPP and vice PM from PMLQ.