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Many elections and no superheroes

  • Published at 06:25 pm July 23rd, 2018
Pakistan’s politics are anything but stable REUTERS

What do elections mean in a state like Pakistan?

A salient reason why playing chess is tough, perhaps, is the difficulty in foreseeing moves. 

Not only are the opponent’s moves and potential attacks hard to predict, but so are one’s own opportunities and chances to structure winning strategies. Good players can envisage various combinations of attacks and threats, then, depending on the opponent’s reaction, unveil their wiles to win games.

This can be used as an analogy in many real-life situations, but perhaps not as aptly for political parties vying for election wins. After all, chess is a game of plots and ploys with a single objective: To checkmate the king. Elections are a relatively recent phenomenon in many developing nations, and they can produce unlikely heroes and villains. 

Some remarkable elections have already taken place in 2018. In Mexico, a left-wing party won; in Turkey, Erdoğan has firmed up his reign with newly-added power; and in Malaysia, the incumbent has been usurped by a firebrand stalwart with a bid to cleanse corruption. Then there were Brexit, Trump, Jokowi, Duterte, and Macron.

In all cases, winners have struck a chord with voters -- they have correctly read the electorates and their opponents, running campaigns, albeit not without controversies and claims of unfair advantage, to develop winning messages for voters.

This week, Pakistan goes to the polls amid immense intrigue. This is the third five-year term federal election to take place since the demise of the last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. This election is backed by immense obstructive efforts from an obsessive opposition party leader, Imran Khan, who spearheaded a legal campaign to lay corruption charges against the incumbent, now ousted, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The country’s National Accountability Bureau has sentenced Sharif and his daughter to 10 years of imprisonment and has barred him from politics for life for not being able to explain how his family owned luxury apartments on a posh London street. In dramatic circumstances last week, Sharif and his daughter were arrested and jailed after arriving back from London, where his wife remains on a ventilator.

However, this is perceived as Sharif’s longstanding struggle with the establishment and also as a back-to-the-wall gimmick for his political survival and to boost the chances of his party -- Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). 

Meanwhile, recent opinion polls suggest Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) -- which has done well in Khyber Paktunkhwa -- has apparently narrowed the gap with PLM-N, and the election is too close to call.

Even though opinion polls are not always reliable, if it turns out true in the polls, PLM-N could return to form a majority government -- and that amid a widely speculated suspicion that the establishment is interfering behind the scenes. Indeed, gross rigging could produce an arbitrary winner.

If the opinion-polls’ predictions hold true, what does it tell about aspiring leaders in similar nations? The aspirant is, after all, a national legend with a privileged background, elite education, considerable popularity, significant charisma and appeal failing to win popular votes, after trying for over 20 years -- a very long period to build an alternative political party.

A few things

Winning the majority as an alternative to traditional parties that a nation already has, is not only very tough and complex, but is impossible, unless the traditional parties are completely void of heirs. 

One-man parties with very good ideals can appeal to general populations, especially those living in big metro areas; the chattering class. This, in turn, may give false impressions to the “aspiring leader” that there is a lot of support for them.

Not that Imran Khan has neglected the remote, regional areas, or hasn’t been playing the “domestic and local politics,” it is just that the traditional strongholds have “very solid” vote banks -- people in these strongholds have no real reason to believe that their lives or society wish for or will affect change.

Corruption allegations, startling allegations of mismanagement of national monies, probably do not really punish the traditional parties -- true for both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif.

Social and traditional media help to reach new, younger populations easily, but they still need a bit more convincing, as a lot of them may have family ties with the nominees from the traditional parties.

And for Pakistan only, winning the state of Punjab decisively secures the majority in the National Assembly as proportional distribution of the NA seats based on the population allocates a disproportionately large number of NA seats to the state -- 148 out of 272.

So, if parties cannot win a larger number of NA seats in the state, their chance of forming a government is very low. However, perhaps it is not entirely impossible to form a coalition with the backing from other minor regional parties. PLM-N has performed strongly in Punjab in successive elections, and has been the ruling provincial government. 

If PLM-N returns, what will it mean for PTI?

There would be hue and cry alleging rigging in the polls, which could see the party disbanded through in-fights. PTI would probably also indulge in incessant disruptions, walking in and out of the parliament which will not be good for the nation, but could bring back the boys (and who knows, maybe that’s exactly what they are hoping for).

What if PTI wins? A marginal win by PTI or the formation of a coalition also seems possible, particularly if PTI gets support from “still undecided” voters. Note, a number of current MPs from traditional parties have joined PTI leading up to the elections.

A new PTI government, as part of a coalition, is unlikely to achieve something groundbreaking in the next five years. Does this then  mean that politics in developing democracies is not going to be stable via a true poll? 

Indeed, instability and disorder have been the prime impetus for dictators to seize control in many developing nations, who have provided stability and economic growth, at least for a while. However, they also lose their grip eventually.

We are then left with one other key election issue -- the question of economy.

Economic indicators seem to be progressing, notwithstanding political upheavals in these places for the last few decades, and are expected to continue, due to current growing nature of these places.

The trouble is, the new leaders and parties are claiming that they can “utilize” this growth in a much more equitable manner by stopping nepotism, introducing systematic overhaul, human development, and so on. They want the population to punt on their achieving rapid and phenomenal development in these places.

Yet, we know that even a new administration will, at least initially, rely on the existing administration, and processes which would require a much longer than an election term to be fixed. Only fools would believe that an overnight change is possible. Looks like voters in these places are not fools.

New parties, like new ideas, can generate new and progressive change focused on national goals. But citizens are rightly sceptical about any “revolutions” or “revolutionary development.” For all their captivating chants, superheroes with their incredible abilities are only real in fictions and on silver screens.

Irfan Chowdhury is a freelance contributor.