As politics, in Pakistan, enters its home-stretch for the 2018 general elections, there is a palpable sense of nervousness across our political diaspora. And the results of the 2018 elections will depend, to a large extent, on who is able to hold his/her nerve through this fleeting season of political change.
For PML(N) the jitters are understandable, even expected. In the wake of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification in the Panama case, there has been a crisis of leadership within the party. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was a placeholder, at best… and Shehbaz Sharif was never really allowed to gain any control on the reigns of party machinery. That, coupled with the controversial rise of Maryam Nawaz, the break-up with Ch. Nisar Ali Khan, en bloc defections in southern Punjab, and episodes like Zaeem Qadri’s tirade, have all contributed towards a tempered election campaign.
Far more surprising, however, is the discord and ricketing within PTI’s ranks. In the absence of any major crisis (compared to PML(N)’s woes) PTI should have been expanding their support base, grooming candidates, and hammering other political parties on issues of governance, foreign policy and security failure. Instead, just four weeks out from the elections, Khan Sb. is embroiled in ticket controversies, discord within the ranks of senior leadership (i.e. Jehangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi), and embarrassing ‘dharnas’ of party loyalists.
So, it is worth asking: what has gone wrong with PTI’s political strategy? Why are they not (comfortably) cruising through this electoral cycle? Why are party loyalists starting to question Khan’s leadership? Why should the ‘youth’ (PTI’s historical strength) come out to support Khan at the polls? What does the party stand for? What is its electoral slogan? And what will it do if it comes to power?
To assess the reasons behind (apparent) dissention with PTI’s ranks, let’s start at the beginning: at the time of that historic Minar-e-Pakistan jalsa in October of 2011 (the true date when Imran Khan’s political party was born), PTI was defined more by what it was not, rather than what it was. The narrative was that ‘everyone else is a chor, while PTI is not!’; members of other political parties hide their assets, own properties abroad, and evade taxes, whereas PTI members do not; other parties frequently compromise on issues concerning financial accountability (e.g. the infamous NRO), whereas PTI does not; other parties make back-room deals (with international guarantors) and live in self-imposed exiles, whereas PTI does not. And this definition – this idea that PTI is an antithesis to the rich and powerful forces of status quo – formed an integral part of PTI’s appeal amongst a new generation of disillusioned voters, who had developed a deep-rooted resentment against gold-plated fiefdoms of select individuals!
However, in the years since that 2011 jalsa, this definition of PTI has received fatal blows on account of PTI’s internal policies. People with questionable loyalties and tarnished political legacies have joined Khan’s platform. As Khan started courting ‘electable’ candidates, and they started responding, PTI could no longer say (with a straight face) that it is a party that abhors forces of status quo. And gradually, we found Imran Khan flanked by the very faces that he promised he was ‘not’!
As PTI lost its identity, even its ‘electables’ could not make a strong showing in the 2013 elections (in terms of winning national assembly seats). Consequently, in May of 2013 elections, Khan Sb. lost two important things: 1) the election; and 2) the defining feature of his political appeal.
After the 2013 elections, just as Khan Sb. and his party were starting to give up the chase against a strong PML(N) government (having lost at the polls, and then at the Judicial Commission proceedings relating to rigging of the general elections), our political paradigm was shaken by the revelations in Panama Leaks. And just like that, through a gift from the heavens, PTI was back in the game.
PTI’s narrative that Nawaz Sharif was corrupt, and needed to be removed, was vindicated by the Panama Leaks. Khan took to the street again with a definitive and tangible slogan to rally around: “Go Nawaz Go!”. PTI had a definition again: it was the party that wanted to remove Nawaz Sharif from his position as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and prosecute him for financial corruption.
This definition was good enough to attract large crowds, and capture the media attention. It was good enough to propel Khan to precedents political heights. Why should anyone support PTI? Because ‘Go Nawaz Go’! Why should we attend Khan’s jalsa? For ‘Go Nawaz Go’! What did Khan say in his speech today? Go Nawaz Go! How has the KPK government performed so far? Not sure, but Go Nawaz Go! Did PML(N) fulfill its electoral promises? Maybe… but Go Nawaz Go! What will happen in the next elections? Go Nawaz Go!
And then, through a verdict of the honorable Supreme Court, Nawaz Sharif was gone. ‘Go Nawaz Go’ had been achieved. The battle was won. And, in the same breath, there was no reason to support Khan and his PTI anymore. There was nothing more to achieve. No apparent goal. Khan was a leader, sure. But was there was no longer any specific destination for him to lead everyone to.
And just like that, once again PTI was (and continues to be) a party without a definition or a concerted political narrative.
In such times, when political parties require some stimulus to jolt their political base, they turn towards party loyalists. A core group of unflinching supporters who are willing to selflessly run that final mile in the marathon. Unfortunately, however, PTI’s quest to seek out the ‘electables’, has left a bitter aftertaste with the loyalists. Distribution of (expected) party tickets has played a major role in the disillusionment of ‘clean’ people, who had supported Khan during the years when he could barely win his own seat. And with the clock running out on the upcoming elections, Khan has little (or no) time to fix this rot.
There is a crisis of identity within PTI. In the post ‘Go Nawaz Go’ scenario, if PTI is unable to unite its support-base behind ‘clean’ ticket-holders, it will inevitably suffer at the polls. And all the struggle of the past five years would have been for nothing at all.
Khan Sb. must find some way to rechannel the spirit that brought thousands of people to that dusty field at the foot of Badshahi Mosque, in October of 2011. He must find some way to put these petty (ticket) disputes behind him, and place faith in the ability of Pakistani people to vote for his party’s promise, over and above his ‘electables’.
That may be the only way to win the upcoming election. Put a better way: that might be the only way this election is worth winning!
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.