Published May 19, 2018 06:04am

Independents as kingmakers?

Tahir Mehdi

THE PPP’s Asif Zardari recently said that independent winners of the general elections will play a key role in forming the next government. Theoretically, the assertion can hold if the mandate in 2018 is divided evenly among top parties, independents win in unusually high numbers and a majority of them then join one of the winning parties.

These are one too many assumptions and all of them play around one factor: the emerging relationship between so-called electables and parties. Thus, the question is: how and when does an electable decide to contest as an independent instead of a party candidate?

In our electoral system, independent winners are allowed to join a party after preliminary results are announced. Unsurprisingly, they prefer joining the party that will form the government. In 2013, independents won in 22 constituencies (excluding Fata); all but three joined the PML-N. In 2008, of 19 winning independents, nine joined the PPP and four the PML-N. In 2002, 16 out of 18 joined the PML-Q.

They are considered a blessing by majority parties, as they not only beef up the party tally directly but also raise its share in the reserved seats pool; for every nine general members, a party gets two reserved seats for women. Thus, with 19 independent winners joining the PML-N in 2013, the party also secured four seats for women, taking its final tally to 23.

There are many assumptions about the relationship between ‘electables’ and parties.

In the past two elections, independent winners have served only to strengthen the party that already had the numbers to form the government. In 2002, however, the PML-Q could not have claimed a majority without independents joining their ranks. Can they assume a make-or-break role in the 2018 elections, as has been claimed by Mr Zardari?

In 2013, independents were either winners or runners-up, or both, in every fifth National Assembly constituency. In real numbers, there were 56 such constituencies in 2013, and 46 and 40 in two elections preceding it. But despite this significant presence, there is no clear link between constituencies, electables and their decision to contest as independents.

Consider these facts: there are only two constituencies that returned the same independent candidate in two of the past three elections. Samina Bharwana won as an independent both in 2002 and 2008 from NA-90 Jhang 5, and Ali Muhammad Mahar won in the same elections as an independent from NA-201 Ghotki 2. Mahar won in 2013 as well, but as a PPP candidate, while Bharwana lost in 2013 contesting on a PML-N ticket. Besides these, there are only four other national seats that returned independent candidates on two of the past three elections, but each time the winner was a different individual.

This clearly shows that there are hardly any constituencies that ‘habitually’ return independent candidates, and there are almost no electables who can be assured of victory without having party affiliation. The decision of whether or not to contest as an independent is taken by electables in the specific political environment surrounding a given election.

So how do they take this decision?

What makes this important move easy for them is the prevalence of a strong public perception (or hawa, as they call it in local parlance) that a particular party will form the next government. They then queue up to secure a ticket from that party, and only if denied will risk contesting as an independent, leaving them open to joining that party after both they and the party have potentially won.

If, however, hawa is not blowing in one direction, electables may hesitate to associate themselves with a particular party and may prefer to contest independently. Apparently, in the current situation, they have good reason to do so, as pundits predict a divided mandate and hung parliament — and no electable wants to end up on the wrong or losing side.

Then there are those who have fallen out of favour within their party as a result of some internecine fight, and the top position in the opposing camps has been taken too. New delimitations have also made electables uncertain about their future. The merger of parts of older constituencies to form new ones has pitched previous winners from these against each other, even if they belong to the same party. As their party will obviously award a ticket to one of them, the other might have to contest as an independent.

There are also reports that many electables, especially those belonging to the PML-N, are being influenced by other centres of power, including the establishment, to change loyalties in exchange for certain assurances. The ruling party’s election campaign also faces the threat of violence from Khatm-i-Nabuwat religious groups. This may force many of the party’s electables to contest the upcoming election as independents.

Electables do give weight to experts’ predictions and ‘secret advices’, but they do not altogether ignore their own assessments of the direction of hawa or popular sentiment. Going independent is never their first choice, since losing the ‘party vote’ is a risk that may, in the end, prove costly.

In 2013, the average margin of victory for seats won by independents was 13,201 while for those won by party candidates against independents it was 32,728. This shows that victory for independents was harder compared to that for party nominees. In 2002, however, both groups shared a similar margin of victory.

This suggests that whether an electable contested on a party ticket or independently, it had no bearing on his/her competitiveness in 2002, but as party politics matured over the following two elections so too did the clear advantages of running on a party ticket. The indications are that party campaigns, especially in Punjab, will be even fiercer this time, which will expand parties’ vote banks and diminish the personal clout of independent electables.

So, while a good number of electables may be tempted or ‘forced’ to contest as independents, it does not necessarily mean they will win in big numbers as well. In that scenario, Mr Zardari’s wheeling-dealing skills, honed in the recent Senate elections, may not come in handy in forming the next government.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2018

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