Voters’ behaviour has completely changed in Pakistan — Do our political parties and establishment know this?

By Irum Saleem

     “February 8 seems a lifetime away for those of us in the television business. New stories, new crises, the latest headlines have given us a form of ADD. We move on to new excitements with the passing of every minute, or the appearance of ‘breaking news’ on channels. But move outside of the television screens and it seems people are still wondering what happened on that day. How did we get the result we did and how did those who were commenting on it, get it wrong — in case anyone is willing to admit they made an incorrect prediction?,” writes Dawn columnist Arifa Noor.

    She says of course, this is not to say that people were not aware of the situation — the wave of popularity for one side and the lack of support for the other. But that this would translate into the elections result it did (till the night of Feb 8) is perhaps what took many aback. Perhaps this was so because the old assumptions no longer hold and, consequently, neither do our analyses, which we tend to build on the basis of certain assumptions.

   “When it comes to elections, those in my profession, at least, tend to work with some set assumptions, such as the voter in Punjab tends to vote with the hawa. Or that the hawa can be managed by sending signals as to which party is the favoured one, and that once the voters have decided which way the hawa is blowing, the ‘blocs’ or dharras interested in getting their gas connections, or roads fixed would make the right decisions. In all of this, there are few ‘individual voters’ who exercise free choice. (To some extent, these assumptions didn’t hold for 2018 either, which is why the famous RTS and its collapse has become political folklore.),” she says.

     Along with this comes the second set of assumptions about what political parties need — in addition to the hawa — to win: election campaigns on the ground, and candidates who are available and ‘electable’, ie, they can reach the electorate, spend the money and organise the logistics to get voters to the polling station. This is what we called election day science, and a party which just wasn’t allowed to do any of this was surely not going to win.

    Arifa Noor further writes the old assumptions no longer hold and, consequently, neither do our analyses.

    “Working with the old assumptions, the conclusion was that the PML-N would win while the PTI wouldn’t. But many of us were proved wrong because the assumptions on which we projected forward no longer hold true. The voters’ behaviour has changed. This may seem like a stale argument to make three months after an election but, bear with me, I do have a point to make.

If old assumptions don’t hold for the electoral exercise, they may not hold true for other long accepted political beliefs either. It is a question worth exploring. Take, for instance, the idea that political forces in dialogue with each other strengthens democracy and pushes back the establishment.”

    This, too, was based on assumptions, which no longer exist. The first and foremost of these was that such dialogues happened at times when all genuine political forces were out in the cold. And that they all had something to gain from this effort — as on the other side, there was a dictator aligned with a king’s party, which had been put together artificially.

Second, the point of such an alliance was to not simply come together but to do so to challenge, and eventually force a change in, the set-up as it existed then.

   “Within this larger context, a dialogue between the three main parties, the PTI, PML-N and PPP, doesn’t really offer a similar parallel. For of the three, two may not want to change the status quo; perhaps if such a dialogue had taken place before the election, it might have offered some space for a new agreement on how to proceed once the results came in. However, now that the governments have been formed, these three no longer have much in common in terms of immediate goals because of the contested election results,” Ms Noor says.

But there is another, perhaps more critical, issue: the creeping control over the legislatures and parties. This has been true for some time and has meant that parties, once they are in the assemblies, regardless of whether they are the BAP, PTI, PML-N, MQM or PML-N, don’t appear to be pushing for creating more democratic space. One can simply consider the legislative record of the parties in power during the PTI tenure as well as the PDM. Or even the manner in which the PDM fell apart or how the PPP and PML-N came together suddenly, after months of estrangement, in a move which culminated in the vote of no-confidence.

   “Parties were able to operate with far more space back in, say, 2007, when Benazir Bhutto was able to confront Musharraf despite having returned to Pakistan after striking a deal with him. Also, the PML-N and PPP, despite their confrontational politics, were able to cooperate on the 18th Amendment (to argue that this was because they had agreed to ‘coexist’ is not entirely accurate). To assume that all of this will change if the parties sit down together is perhaps too optimistic. After all, a similar assumption underlay the vote of no-confidence but the events since have proven matters otherwise; in those days, the PTI was painted out to be the latest version of PML-Q, while the PPP and PML-N were seen as if they were still in their 2007 avatars” Arifa Noor writes.

However, it is important to point out that this is no pitch against a political dialogue. Not at all. At the end of the day, a dialogue and negotiations are the best way forward out of any crisis, rather than constant confrontation. But we should be wary of assuming that a dialogue as it happened in the past will open up political space as then. The older assumptions no longer hold true in one case; they might not in another. We face a more complicated scenario and the answers may also be not as simple. PAK DESTINY

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