When The Field Is Uneven

These are desperate times in Pakistan. With elections right round the corner, the parties of the political coalition that ruled the country the past five years – the PPP, the ANP, the MQM and the PML-Q – haven’t yet begun their election campaigns, at least not in the manner they would have liked to. Leaden under a reputation for the worst governance in the famously weak governing traditions of Pakistan and a tanked out economy, facing the electorate will not be an easy task. The Pakistani Taliban have also not left much space for these parties to venture far from their secure bases in search for ragtag voters who might help the parties in saving (some) face.
The case of each party, though, is quite different. While the PPP was the single largest party in the last parliament – and by extension also more responsible for the mess the country is in today – the others simply bandied onto the larger partner. The ANP held the majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is thus responsible for the state the province is in today, albeit with significant redemption that came its unfortunate way. The MQM and the PML-Q typically piggy-backed on the other two to be able to gain the pelf and power that went with playing the role of the junior coalition partners.
It is, therefore, surprising to hear the most popular refrain today – the lack of a level playing field. This is the same field the parties in power left behind at the end of their tenure. Even when in power, their leadership preferred to confine themselves to security cordons which did little to endear them to the public. Why then this commotion? Haven’t campaign strategies now changed in any case from huge gatherings and rallies to a much more savvy use of the media?
The Taliban may have, by default, done a huge favour to these parties by threatening them, giving them a perfect alibi for what is likely to be a dismal performance at the polls. Not all, but the major ones are unlikely to return, unless of course Zardari still has a few tricks in his repertoire. Many think that may be so; and a number (80-85 seats) is spoken of. Should they come the PPP’s way, Asif Zardari may spring a surprise on this nation by bringing his people back into power. He will need some significant wins by his potential coalition partners too to work this magic.
With the PPP’s former coalition colleagues less likely to oblige, chances are that when posed with a possibility to form the government the legendary Zardari magic might bring about a huge mishmash of political affiliations – where ideologies take a back seat and political pragmatism is practised to its utmost. For example, if the JUI-F wins big in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and significantly in Balochistan – and can make for the missing numbers from both the ANP and the PML-Q – we will see the making of an extraordinary political spectacle. Were it to be so, the apprehensions now being cast under the shadow of a violent election environment simply may not hold water.
President Zardari’s resort to constituency politics is perhaps the most judicious assessment of the PPP’s current political standing and likely fortune. That is half the job done. What if he can hold on to about 50 percent of the seats in play in Sindh? This is not an impossible assumption. Can he then hope to hold on to around 40 percent of southern Punjab – in terms of constituencies, not popular vote (depending on how you constitute southern Punjab)? That should be around 15-20 seats. What if he were to scramble a similar additional number from all over? Zardari will be in business. Remember, his other two competitors, the PML-N and the PTI are both his and each others’ opposition. That opens up the field, and a host of possible permutations. A mathematician with great political sense will carry the day this election.
Does this go against the trends seen in surveys and electoral polls? Quite clearly so; but the difficulty with surveys and polls is their generic nature and the indication of the popular vote rather than constituency positions, making them misleading. Constituency politics is pretty self-contained and can only be swayed away from traditional patterns by a huge tsunami-like phenomenon, the real predicament for the PPP.
The MQM will find itself dented somewhat, both by a relatively lower voter turnout – a significant indicator of latent discomfort with the party’s politics in the last five years – and the environment of violence in Karachi that might just carry through to polling day. Yet, it is safe to assume that the MQM will still hold a voting block of at least 20 seats, and so retain its position as a dominant player in the politics of Karachi and that of a perpetual kingmaker at the centre.
The ANP is perhaps the only party that has a very difficult campaign to conduct, given the security situation in the province. They may have offered personal sacrifice, which needs to be acknowledged, but the voter has mostly remained disaffected. Also, this time around, there are two additional big league contestants in the midst – the PTI and the PMLN. Count in a resurgent Fazlur Rehman, and you have a four-way fight. The spoils for the ANP, therefore, will be rather meagre. If a secularist – if there is any – makes a point of the Taliban forcing an uneven playing field, this is where it is. Unfortunately, other than the number of ANP people killed, the party has little to offer as succour to its people.
The going is tough, undoubtedly. But, then who said that politics in such a riven place is easy? When the playing field seems uneven, a little more nerve should help. In the absence of a tsunami, a mathematician with great political sense is all poised to carry the day. And even that needs qualification.