By Ayaz Amir
November 03, 2015
The local elections – or their first phase in Punjab and Sindh – have confirmed the domination, in their respective spheres, of the two ruling parties. The PPP has triumphed in the districts of interior Sindh, the PML-N and independents in the powerhouse of Punjab. What are independents? They’ll gravitate to where power is. So basically it is the tried and tested, and the sleaze-tainted, which have triumphed. Long live the politics of predictability.
Nothing wrong with this except that the PML-N remains an awfully boring party whose stock of fresh ideas, if there was any to begin with, ran out long ago. What does the party stand for? The interests of big business and the politics of the status quo mixed with a large dose of populism…pro-people rhetoric which is just that, rhetoric, and nothing more. But it has proved a powerful combination and has kept the Sharifs in power – the longest run in Pakistan’s history – for close to 35 years, off and on.
We may carp at this as much as we like but there’s no beating success. The Sharifs were fairly down and out last year, the Islamabad sit-ins threatening to sweep them from power. Apart from the fact that they have been smart enough to adjust to the army’s greater role in decision-making, they are vastly more comfortable in the saddle today than at this time last year.
Two years is a long time and anything can happen between now and 2018 when the country goes to the polls. And it is a foolish man who will make predictions. But this much is clear: the Sharifs may have been weakened vis-à-vis the army but they remain strong vis-à-vis the other political parties. Meanwhile, the PTI which had set out to assault the bastions of power is collapsing in on itself. It is not shaping up into much of a challenge.
No doubt the PTI has become the PML-N’s principal rival in Punjab, the PPP having been displaced from that position. This is no mean achievement. Even so, it is just not developing the right pace. Its performance remains erratic and it doesn’t seem to have much of a central message to convey. Simply saying that you are for change without being able to define your vision of change is not likely to go too far in impressing anyone.
Moreover, the PTI is still not attracting that groundswell of support which should have come its way if people were really fed up with the PML-N. If the PTI’s fortunes had been on the rise most of the independents who have won on their own in these local elections would have been inside its tent. The fact that they are not shows that the PTI still has a long way to go before it can mount a serious challenge to the PML-N.
Bear in mind that the independents were the second largest party in these elections, the PTI running a distant third. This is not a very good state of affairs as far as the PTI is concerned.
But this is today and there is still plenty of time before the next general elections. Let’s not forget also that things happen differently in general elections. The factors are different. Anyway, if a week is a long time in politics two and a half years stretches into the remote distance.
Bhutto formed his PPP in 1967 and within three years the party was knocking at the gates of power. In 1966 Sheikh Mujib was facing the Agartala conspiracy case and four years later he was being hailed as father of his nation. In 2007 the Q League was all poised to win the coming elections but then out of the blue happened the lawyers’ movement and before anyone could have guessed it Musharraf’s grip on power weakened. And who could have foreseen the tragedy which struck Benazir Bhutto?
So anything is possible. But anything means anything, including the Sharifs’ being around for a longer time. Imagine the near boundless thrill of that.
There are two points of view here. PML-N partisans can argue, as they do stridently and without intermission, that what Pakistan needs is stability and the strengthening of democracy…goals best ensured by two things: the army staying in its barracks and Nawaz Sharif staying in power. The counter-argument is that the status quo is keeping Pakistan in bondage and backwardness and that to break free from these constraints and move ahead what it needs is not more of the same old porridge but renewal and change.
The PTI was supposed to stand for the dynamic alternative: renewal and change. Its appeal to the young, to students, to women, to those not previously engaged in politics or tied to the old parties rested on this factor. Imran Khan was the herald of change, or he was supposed to be that. But it’s not quite working out that way. His appeal was at its peak last year at the time of the sit-ins but it has since waned. Pakistan is back to the politics of the usual.
There are people who will say this is what Pakistan needs and they will point to the stabilising of the national situation. There are things which the army is handling – Fata, Karachi, national security, etc. The main contours of national policy, be they internal or external, are being determined by the army. But the army is somewhere at the back, exercising its influence from the shadows. In the forefront remain: 1) the different symbols of democracy and 2) the Sharifs.
Call it a diarchy – two strands of influence and decision-making – but it is working. Left to himself, Nawaz Sharif would have found it hard to resist the temptation of charging at windmills, this being his old, virtually uncontrollable propensity. He is being kept in check by the army. But the army is also being kept in check by democracy.
This is a good thing…check and counter-check. Nawaz Sharif as sole paramount leader of Pakistan would be a recipe for disaster. Direct army rule would be an equal disaster. So we have a halfway house, the product of no conscious design but a product of our circumstances. The civilians could take no decisions. They certainly couldn’t fight terrorism. So the army moved in, especially when it got a chief who had little patience for dithering. But the army under his command also thought it best to go so far and no more…which has given the country its present halfway house.
The Sharifs, to give them their due, have imbibed their lesson. Nawaz Sharif, overcoming his natural propensity, is not rocking the boat. And he is settling for a long wait, biding his time, hoping that time will take care of his troubles.
Bhutto had managed to stir the masses in Punjab and Sindh, and to some extent the Frontier, in the period leading up to the 1970 elections. People were sick and tired of the Ayubian order. Bhutto created a mood for change. Imran Khan’s performance is uneven. He has touched crowds and then he has not touched them, his appeal flickering and waning. And as he is the only alternative on offer, it makes for a dismal picture.
There are the Sharifs and there is Imran Khan, and in the rest of Sindh there is the PPP, and in Karachi the MQM which, for reasons easily understood, has gone quiet and is lying low.
This is all that there is to the tedious spread of Pakistani politics – the dreary and the predictable predominating and no room for poetry or the play of the imagination. We know what to expect: stale rhetoric and some more flyovers and signal-free corridors…and fat-cats in the shadows making more fat bucks.
It is better than Syria and Iraq, and Libya and Yemen. But the Lord knows it’s not a very exciting buffet.