Selling Failure

The PPP’s victory in the recent elections was never on the cards. Yet, few had foreseen that it would be thrashed that badly and demoted from a nationwide to a regional party. So what went wrong?
President Zardari smells a rat in his party’s dismal performance. If he is to be taken at his word, national and international forces conspired to bring about the PPP’s defeat. International forces, as Zardari sees it, were unhappy over his government’s policies, particularly its efforts to shore up relations with neighbouring countries. The president has constituted a committee to figure out why the PPP cut such a sorry figure in the elections. One wonders what the committee will do if the party’s top leader has already made up his mind about the reasons behind its defeat.
Pakistan has a history of rigged elections. At times, the electoral process was manipulated by powerful agencies in connivance with the administration and – in the presence of a toothless Election Commission – to the detriment of the PPP. A case in point is the 1990 election, which, as acknowledged by the Supreme Court in the Asghar Khan case, was rigged by the agencies at the behest of the then president to forestall the PPP’s return to power.
Things, however, are different in 2013: an independent Election Commission and a neutral caretaker government – at least in no way anti-PPP. To top it all, Zardari himself holds the office of the president.
Granted that the conclusions that Zardari has reached are valid, the foremost question that comes to one’s mind is whether the same forces were behind the party’s victory five years ago? The PPP was pushed into the corridors of power, one may conjecture, to complete the ‘agenda’ of the hidden forces. Either its government fulfilled that agenda and thus was not needed for the second round or simply failed to measure up to the expectations of the powers that be. In either case, if we follow this chain of reasoning, a change in government was in order. Surely those who can bring a political party to power can also kick it out.
One may, however, put the conspiracy theory aside, and attribute largely, if not entirely, the PPP’s assumption of (in 2008), and exit from (in 2013), power to the choice of the electorate. What plausible causes can then be pinpointed? It was only for the second time in its 45-year history that the PPP went to the polls on the basis of its performance. The 1970, 1988, 1990, 1997, 2002 and 2008 electoral battles were fought by the PPP either as a challenger to the status quo or as a party wronged by the establishment. When a party is cast in such a role, it wins a great deal of public sympathy in our part of the world.
The 1993 elections were contested by the PPP as a friend of the establishment. It was only in 1977 that the PPP entered the electoral fray on the basis of its performance, as the party had been in the saddle since 1971. The party swept aside its opponents, but amid charges of massive rigging. The 2013 polls again brought the PPP to a situation where it was to be judged principally on the performance of its government. The PPP’s five-year tenure shows that those who had bet on the party to do well at the polls were overly optimistic.
No doubt the PPP government enacted significant legislation such as the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments to the constitution, which restored the powers and prestige of parliament, conferred substantial autonomy on the provinces, set the stage for holding a credible electoral exercise, and improved the method for appointments in the superior judiciary. The government also went all out against militancy and endeavoured to improve relations with neighbours, particularly India. However, it failed to address some problems of immediate concern, at the top of which were the law and order situation and the energy crisis.
For the most part of the PPP regime the economy remained in stagflation – a dangerous combination of high inflation and low growth. Stories of massive corruption in high places continued to do the rounds. The widespread perception was that the be-all-and-end-all of the government was only to complete its tenure and that the ruling party had turned its back on the masses, for whom it mattered little who was more powerful: the president or the prime minister, the centre or the provinces; whether the judges were selected by the executive or by a parliamentary committee. The people looked at the government for jobs, reduced cost of living, uninterrupted power supply and security of life and property. But they found it more interested in effecting national reconciliation, which was widely seen as nothing more than ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.
The PPP leaders blame different forces – mainly the judiciary – for preventing them from redressing the people’s problems. Obviously, the electorate didn’t buy this argument. The party also dismisses the allegations of massive corruption. Granted that the tales of graft were mere perception, but they had to be corrected as the electorate decides on the basis of perception and reality. The party’s electoral campaign focused on the alleged misdeeds of its rivals rather than the party’s own achievements. Few things can be more unconvincing than Rehman Malik accusing others of corruption.
The PPP went to the polls without a credible leadership to pilot its ship. Zardari, by virtue of being president had to stay away, while security concerns kept his son Bilawal from electioneering. This left two former prime ministers, both accused of massive corruption and neither commanding high popular esteem, to lead the party into the elections.
The party’s best bet was a division of the vote bank of the two leading parties, namely the PML-N and the PTI, to its advantage. That didn’t turn out to be the case. On the contrary, the PPP’s own vote bank in Punjab, both urban and rural, suffered severe dents.
The PPP had a bad product to sell to the electorate and it marketed it terribly. Ask any salesperson and he will point out that a bad product backed by a bad marketing campaign only spells disaster for an enterprise.