Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and former leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), was sentenced to a collective 31-year jail term last week. The two of the cases that resulted in the sentencing involved charges of the illegal sale of state gifts to make a profit and disclosing state secrets. The decisions of the court cases were released just days before Pakistan’s general elections, which the former PTI chief has been disqualified from. Not only that but the PTI also lost their electoral symbol, the Bat and other members of Khan’s party and not allowed to contest the election under their former electoral symbol. Considering this development, politicians have had to switch parties and run independently to remain eligible to contest elections.
The Set-Up for the 2024 Elections
The moving pieces of democracy in Pakistani politics involve individual candidates, the parties that the candidates belong to, their promises (fulfilled or unfulfilled), and the electoral process. In the upcoming election scheduled for February 8, unfulfilled promises and a flawed electoral process are expected. Nevertheless, politicians continue changing their affiliations to different political parties or running as independents to increase their chances of winning a national or provincial assembly seat for the next five years.
Unfortunately, it is political affiliation more than a party’s manifesto that decides election outcomes in Pakistan. Under a political landscape where announcing candidacy under a specific electoral symbol is the most decisive action a candidate can take to seal their fate in the polls, branding and rebranding become akin to survival. Party reaffiliation and independent candidacy are the most common forms of rebranding in this year’s elections.
Process of Political Rebranding
Political parties in Pakistan are structured to reward the top brass for their loyalty. As such, members of the top brass, such as Ahsan Iqbal of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) among many others, are unlikely to switch parties because they have become synonymous as the faces of their parties alongside their leaders. As with a sinking ship, when these parties fail to gain the establishment’s favor, the top brass goes down with the vessel. However, when the party is succeeding these individuals also reap the most direct benefits of power in the form of ministerial positions and leadership of the houses.
Prominent politicians like Iqbal and Gillani are unlikely to achieve a similar status in an opposing political party that already has a set top brass. On the rare occasion when there are disagreements among party leadership and ample resources, top politicians could branch off and establish their own parties, such is the case of Jehangir Tareen’s Ishtehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP). However, even in the case of Tareen’s party, the individuals who filled the ranks of the IPP were the independent candidates he had brought in droves to the PTI in 2018.
Party switching is certainly not a new practice in Pakistan. The politicians most likely to rebrand when a party loses the establishment’s favor, are those in the middle and lower tiers of political parties. For such politicians, political rebranding serves to cleanse and promote them. By reaffiliating to a new political party or choosing to run independently under a new electoral symbol, politicians are looking to dispense of the baggage of their previous political affiliation.
A primary step in the rebranding process is announcing candidacy under a new banner. For some lucky individuals, the announcement alone increases the name recognition of the candidate by pulling them into the media cycle and winning a few hours or days of free publicity. For those that are not as well known, rebranding still achieves the goal by cleansing them of a past that was preventing their absorption into potential coalition governments.
Political Rebranding’s Electoral Consequences
Since political analysts are predicting that a coalition government is the most likely outcome of the 2024 elections, increasing name recognition can become a politician’s path to power. However, as the tactics of reaffiliation and independent candidacy become more common the political landscape is becoming increasingly diluted, more so than any of the 11 general elections in Pakistan’s history. While on the surface these elections may seem more competitive, the higher number of independent candidates could be detrimental for two of the most important stakeholders: newer candidates and younger voters.
As more mid-tier politicians break away from mainstream political parties and choose to contest on independent tickets, they take slots that were previously open for newer candidates. While there may not be any limit to contestants for each National Assembly seat, given an average of 19 candidates per seat this election, politicians still need to gain prominence in the eyes of the electorate. Naturally, those who are starting off with a previous affiliation, more resources, and experience are more likely to be successful. These leaders are from established political parties such as the PPP, PML-N, and those formerly affiliated with the PTI (some of whom are now running as independent candidates). Unfortunately, the names that take up the rest of the ballot rarely make it to conversations on the election. Even provincial elections are overrun by mainstream political parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
Some have argued that the Pakistani people are tired of politicians who are not fulfilling their promises. In such cases, newer candidates may be a welcome change. However, even then, the diluted pool means that it is harder for any one candidate to amass enough support to beat out more established politicians.
Similarly, for younger voters who are engaging in their first election in Pakistan, the façade of greater competition is concealing the barrier to engaging in political discourse that is still dominated by dynasties. Since voters are not aware of the new politicians running in their constituencies, they are not going to be able to understand what politicians stand for, and ask them questions about their mandates, voters — young and old — are caught up in the usual political blame game that is characteristic of Pakistani politics. With less than two weeks left before polls open, even a well-intentioned voter does not have enough time to engage with the politicians in their constituency meaningfully.
Once again, voters and democracy lose out in Pakistan while the politicians and establishment are busy ensuring that they end up on top. While a free, fair, and competitive election is in everyone’s interest, artificially inflated competition could lead to less — not more — engagement from voters in 2024. If a coalition government forms, it would be interesting to see which realignments and new affiliations proved most fruitful.