Peoples’ barometer

Peoples’ barometer
The results of three by-elections in Punjab this week are a barometer of the mood of the people. They also shed light on the theory and practice of the political parties in the ring.

The PPP is headless and lost. Its supporters have switched to the PTI and PMLN. There was no sign of their leaders during the election campaigns – even Asif Zardari’s picture was missing from their banners as though he were a leper. It has no manifesto to flog, no mission to accomplish. This is due to Mr Zardari’s abysmal track record viz corruption, incompetence and bad governance. For the only national liberal party in the country that also represented the true hopes and aspirations of the unwashed masses, that won four elections in the most adverse circumstances and sacrificed three precious lives in the bargain, this is a tragedy of monumental proportions. It will be many moons before the PPP can field an inspiring leader who succeeds in reviving the party, if at all.

The vacuum left by the PPP has been filled by the PTI. It is the rising star on the firmament. After winning Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI has mounted the strongest challenge to the PMLN on its home turf of Punjab in the last thirty years.

Interestingly enough, the PTI’s trajectory of power closely resembles that of the PLMN. Its leader, Imran Khan, has been nurtured and groomed by the military establishment, in particular Generals Pervez Musharraf, Ahmed Shuja Pasha and Zaheer ul Islam like the PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif was once fostered by Generals Zia, Ghulam Jilani and Hameed Gul. The early political practice of both parties consisted of a high dose of political Islam – the anti-India jihad of the 1990s for Nawaz Sharif and the anti-Afghanistan Taliban movement of the 2000s for Imran Khan. The PTI’s political tactics of destabilization in cahoots with the military — third-umpire inspired dharna in 2014 and subsequent agitations — follow the trail of the PMLN which mounted “operation midnight jackals” to get rid of the first Benazir Bhutto regime in 1988-90, launched a long march against the Zardari regime in 2009 and kicked off Memogate in 2011.

The PTI’s electoral strategy now also mirrors that of the PMLN – the heady visions of a pristine ideological party led by a towering leadership have been replaced by a corrupt and opportunist lotacracy that is relying on the likes of a dubious moneybags like Aleem Khan to represent its “true” face in the Punjab. Instead of plucking a new leadership from the grassroots, the PTI is grabbing every wealthy lota who is ready to switch from the PPP and PLMN for one reason or another. In fact, its reliance on money to buy votes and pull out the voters is akin to that of the PMLN. Indeed, its politics of intolerance and unseemly language resemble that of the PMLN in its early years before it shook off the influence of the military.

PTI supporters insist they have won a “moral victory” in NA-122 because their candidate has lost by a few thousand votes against the mighty state supported Speaker of the National Assembly, Ayaz Sadiq. But they forget that the immoral tactics used by their candidate to buy votes are no different from those of the traditional status quo parties they oppose, including the PMLN. So what choice are they giving when the meaning of morality and honesty and ideological purity is the same for them as for the parties they oppose?

The PMLN has arrived at its moment of truth. Imran Khan’s dharna has distracted it from governance. Its promises of rapid economic development and poverty alleviation have not been fulfilled on the ground. Its foreign policy is a shambles. Whatever credit is due to fighting terrorism has accrued to the military and not the PMLN. Governance is uninspiring and marked by ministerial in-fighting. It had to throw everything in its arsenal – including a last minute dash to the area by no less than the Prime Minister — to win NA-122 by a whisker. It lost the provincial seat to a rank PTI upstart. In NA-144, it was outstripped by an independent, which is a greater measure of the disgruntled mood of the people in general and of the poor choice of candidates in particular. It shows no sign of recognizing the changing demography of the country in which the youth bulge is prominent because its discontent and aspirations have not been channelled.

Therefore the PPP, PMLN and PTI need to do some serious soul searching. A strong and stable democracy needs the PPP as a left-liberal party and the PMLN as a centrist party. As the challenger, the PTI must occupy the space between these two parties rather than stand with the Islamists to the right of the PMLN. But with two caveats: the PTI must not be beholden to the military for its electoral fortunes and it must shed its fascist and intolerant behaviour.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.