Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) won the recent election, thus bringing to fruition the long effort of its founder, Imran Khan, to find a life after cricket. But in the process it also brought about a major change in the country’s political geography. It not only managed to replace the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in KP and Punjab, but it also managed to do so by breaking into Pakistan Muslim League –Nawaz (PML-N) strongholds that the PPP had conceded. Perhaps more significant, it managed to break into MQM strongholds in Karachi and Hyderabad, thus representing the long-overdue revulsion of the Muhajir community against its ghetto-isation.
Ever since the 1988 elections, the PPP has generally lost in Rawalpindi, Attock, Chakwal, Mianwali and Bhakkar districts. It is in these areas that the PTI’s wins are most significant. The wins in central Punjab reflect those swing seats where the PPP has generally won whenever it also won in the centre. Perhaps more significant, and certainly at least as significant, the PTI won in the districts of Hazara Division. The seats in this area had been safe for the PML-N since 1988, even when the PPP and the ANP won enough seats to form the KP government. It is perhaps no wonder that the PML-N has found both of its KP Chief Ministers, Sabir Shah and Mehtab Abbassi, from this region. It should be noted that while the PTI had formed the KP government in 2013, it had lost in this area.
Even Lahore has seen the PTI move forward. In 1988, the PPP had split the district 5-4, but in 1990, it had only won one urban seat. In 1990, that too was lost, and Lahore district became solid PML-N territory from 1993 onwards, till 2013, when it lost a national seat for the first time in two decades. One mark of the change that had taken place is that Imran himself has won a Lahore seat, which he has failed to do in all his attempts since 2002.
Then there are the PTI victories in Karachi, which had been solidly MQM territory since the 1988 local body polls. Not only the MQM, but the PPP also lost its Lyari seat to the PTI. That too was as solid a seat as any. In fact, the only long time monopoly the PTI did not affect was that in interior Sindh, where the PPP has won big since it came into being.
One effect has been to bring back the country’s largest city into the mainstream of national politics. It also means that Karachi and Hyderabad will look to the PTI to articulate their needs, and to fulfil them. It should be remembered that these political needs and aspirations are different now from when the MQM started to articulate them. Before the MQM, Muhajirs had voted for the JUP or the Jamaat Isalami. The former alone is still around; the latter is now moribund.
The PTI is supposed to have benefited from pre-poll rigging. It has been true that no ruling party has been re-elected since 1977 (and that election was part of the background to the Zia martial law). However, it is also true that no government has ever dissolved Parliament, except in 1993, when there has been a prior presidential dissolution. From 1988, dissolutions were by the President, until martial law was imposed in 1999. Since then, National Assemblies have run to term. However, in the last two assemblies, the Prime Minister had been ousted from his job after being disqualified from membership of the National Assembly. When the President dissolved, there would be accusations of corruption, and even prosecutions.
2018 was no exception, though it was noteworthy that the old binary of PML-N-PPP was now disrupted, especially in Punjab, where the PTI may well capture the provincial government, and where it won the bulk of its national seats. Has the PTI fitted itself into the binary? It depends on how well the party institutionalises itself. Is Pakistan heading towards a UK-like situation, where Labour gradually replaced the Liberals as the party of governance over a couple of decades at the beginning of the 20th century? It is significant to remember that the Liberals survived, to the extent that in 1974 they actually claimed nearly a fifth of the vote (though only 14 seats in a 650-seat House), and after a merger with the Social Democrats (which was essentially the right wing of the Labour Party), formed a coalition with the Tories in 2010-15, in their current Liberal Democrat avatar.
Or is the PPP about to face the fate of various factions of various parties in India, which have become ‘regionalised’, like the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal (a now-regional Congress faction), or the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar (which hived off from a Janata faction)? The PPP has once again basically won in Sindh alone, where it has won a majority in the provincial assembly for the third term in succession. It should not rely on its interior Sindh strongholds. They may have held this time, but as we’ve learnt from Karachi, the Hazarajat and Punjab, strongholds ultimately fall.
Perhaps that is a lesson the PTI itself needs to learn. It can perhaps describe KP as a stronghold, but it has not won there with the same kind of metronomic regularity that the PML-N showed in the Hazarajat, the PPP in Lyari and the MQM in the rest of Karachi.
Another lesson is that the military is unforgiving of its protégés. Is it entirely without significance that both the PPP and the PML-N were founded by men who ultimately became military protégés? Both found that the realities of power made it impossible to satisfy the demands of the military and those of their supporters. The reaction of the military was almost as if their sin was having a support base of their own, rather than simply disobedience. Bhutto was hanged, and while Mian Nawaz has been flung in Adiala jail, the recent election saw every effort to make sure he did not win. Imran will have to find a balance between satisfying his supporters and keeping his backers happy.
That may not be possible. It should be remembered that both Bhutto and Nawaz pulled the military’s irons out of the fire. After the surrender at Paltan Maidan, it was Bhutto who negotiated the return of the 90,000 POWs. It was Nawaz who went to Washington on a holiday to extract the Army out of the mess it had got itself into over Kargil. The author of the latter was the man who overthrew him. What Imran will have to watch out for is a military encounter with India. If he is needed to pull any Army irons out of that fire, he can be sure that he will find himself on the wrong side of it.
Another thing to watch is that Imran is not yet on the left. Bhutto was on the left, but at the same time, a fervent supporter of confrontation with India, and thus of the military narrative. Bhutto was also much more anti-American than Imran. That anti-Americanism is severely diluted. In the same way, it is to be seen how a party which relies as much on a diaspora increasingly based in the USA, can maintain anti-American feeling, even to the extent of rhetoric.
Pakistan has perhaps not yet moved past the Bhutto era. Imran’s youth was when Bhutto was Prime Minister (PM). Perhaps electing as PM a sexagenarian was not the best way Pakistan could choose to get past it. Problem was, the 30-year-old leading the PPP now is Bhutto’s grandson. Still, 1970 was the last time the country’s political geography got such a major makeover.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.
As we’ve learnt from the election results in Karachi, the Hazarajat and Punjab, strongholds ultimately fall.