AT the risk of gross generalisation, here is the takeaway from Multan’s by-election. One, ideological politics is dead. The left-right divide in terms of which we have analysed election prospects for the last four decades is no longer a useful analytical tool. Those whose political consciousness was shaped in the late ’60s and early ’70s by politics of left and right, liberalism and conservatism are now a minority. With an average national age of 23.5, the politicised youth of Pakistan that will decide the fortunes of political parties is non-ideological.
Two, the two-party system that emerged during the ’90s is undergoing a metamorphosis. PTI has emerged as the new mainstream party that is giving the traditional mainstream parties — PML-N and PPP — a run for their money. But the three-way contest in a non-ideological environment is more bad news for PPP than PML-N. The myth of the ’90s that the PPP voter stayed at home when unhappy as opposed to voting for another party stands busted. The PPP voter seems to be opting for PTI.
Three, in Punjab, PPP’s decline (or demise) has enhanced the number of floating votes. Not bound to the manifesto or ideology of a political party, this vote is portable. (This may also be because with no real difference between the socio-economic agendas of parties, the rhetoric in their manifestos is hardly distinguishable.) The floating voter makes snap choices. Absent ideology or competing reform agendas, such choice is influenced by tailwind built upon the credibility, rhetoric and charm of top leaders.
The Multan by-poll’s message is only indirectly for the PML-N and essentially for the PPP in Punjab.
Four, the average urban Punjabi voter seems to believe that the crisis of Pakistan has been caused by the absence of honest and capable leadership. The choice is thus not between PML-N and PTI, but between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan (which also partly explains the decline/demise of the Zardari-led PPP in Punjab). It might seem ironical that those who decry Sharif’s monarchical style believe that in replacing one man with another lies our panacea. For now the form of change that has captured public imagination is the reign of an untested ‘saviour’.
Five, because none of our mainstream parties have set out an agenda that carries mass appeal (such as Bhutto’s roti, kapra aur makan), the hope for change rests on the ability of a saviour to miraculously fix all things broken. The contemporary political conflict has come to be defined as one between incumbency and change. Imran Khan has built his brand as a system-outsider and change agent with Sharif as the status quo symbol. For Khan’s mesmerised supporters anyone backed by him becomes an agent of change by association.
Javed Hashmi was a change agent while on Khan’s right side and became part of the wicked old order as soon as he fell out with Khan. Are critics wrong to claim that PTI is selling old wine in a new bottle (with Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Amir Dogar representing change in Multan and Sheikh Rasheed in Rawalpindi)? In a political setting driven by individuals sans ideology, PTI is using Imran Khan’s oversight as the cleansing agent for ‘electables’ capable of managing elections locally, notwithstanding their past, and it seems to be working.
Bhutto could nominate a pole in the 1970 elections and it would win, so went the belief. It was Bhutto’s charisma combined with the promise of change backed by a reform agenda that led to the victory of nobodies nominated by PPP back then. The vote garnered by PTI in the 2013 elections established that Khan is now a vote puller. But his pull produced victories largely where it was complemented by the local candidate’s ability to manage the election. The message was reinforced when bad candidates cost PTI the seats its chief vacated in Peshawar and Mianwali.
The Multan by-election’s real message is only indirectly for PML-N and essentially for PPP in Punjab. That it is getting wiped out. What does this mean for political families and clans still associated with PPP (ie the likes of Amir Dogar, PPP’s ex-secretary general for southern Punjab)? And what happens if PTI manages to pull significant numbers in PPP’s heartland in Larkana to back its claim that its message is resonating across Pakistan?
If despite Yousuf Raza Gilani’s best efforts, PPP could only bag 6,000 votes in Multan (southern Punjab being PPP territory prior to 2013 and all) and is seen struggling to keep its support intact even in Sindh, the message heard in Punjab will be simple: the next electoral conflict will be between PML-N and PTI, with PPP being a sideshow. Post-Larkana, those PPP-ites interested in pursuing careers in Punjabi politics might be tempted to jump ship and join PTI while it is still in the business of whitewashing electable politicos from other parties.
What does this mean for the timing of change? Unfortunately for PTI, the mechanics of change haven’t changed. The Multan by-election reminds us that while rallies are important markers of public opinion, public mandate only flows out of elections. The two non-representative institutions with some ability to instigate mid-term polls are the army and the judiciary. When the khakis could have intervened during the recent stand-off on Constitution Avenue, the army chief said no thank you. He won’t retire till the end of 2016.
The post-Iftikhar Chaudhry judiciary also seems disinterested in playing a role in shaping the country’s political landscape and rightly so. No number of jalsas will cause Sharif to call an early election. Resignation from the 30-odd seats PTI has in parliament won’t trigger mid-term polls. PPP and MQM have no incentive to invite early elections through mass resignations; both parties might lose seats if an election is held today, and in a status quo vs change election they will both be pitted against PTI.
In a nutshell, PTI’s politics of street agitation might keep a dazed PML-N government rickety, but there presently exists no conceivable mechanism to bring it down. Whether PTI with its ongoing romance with expediency will be able to induce reformative change in Pakistan if voted into power is an entirely different question.