Written by Mohammad Waseem.

Given the alleged manipulation of the 2018 elections, how can one interpret the PTI’s leading position in terms of votes and seats? How can we describe the phenomenal rise of Imran Khan from his first show of power in October 2011 at Minar-e-Pakistan?

If Z. A. Bhutto represented populism of the left in the 1970s, Imran represents populism of the right half a century later.

Imran is the unrivaled leader of the urban middle class. A quarter of a century ago, Nawaz Sharif represented the first major shift of political leadership from the rural to the urban milieu. Imran Khan has taken a step further in the direction of bringing the urban middle class into politics. The middle class generally disliked the political dynasties for being corrupt, morally bankrupt and exploitative of the masses. Corruption is essentially a middle class issue in Pakistan. So is the Islamization project. Nationalism, especially as defined in terms of antinomies such as anti-Indianism and anti-Americanism, is championed by the middle class that defines its ideological contours and policy orientations. Imran Khan has amply given expression to all these concerns in the rapidly urbanising Pakistan and mobilised the middle class for electoral politics. Secondly, the youth served as a latent support base of the PTI, though to a lesser extent than in 2013. Thirdly, expatriate Pakistanis cherish Imran Khan as the person who can lead the country to the promised land.

If Z. A. Bhutto represented populism of the left in the 1970s, Imran represents populism of the right half a century later. The former led a formidable group of socialist ideologues who led him to victory in (West) Pakistan and later carried out the agenda of nationalisation of industry and reforms in such fields as labour relations, landholdings, education, health, tenurial relations, civil administration and the federalist arrangement for equal representation of the four provinces in the Senate in the 1973 Constitution. By 1977, the ideologues had been eased out of the PPP by the ‘electables’. By contrast, the PTI ‘electables’ were able to get rid of the leading ideologues before the 2018 elections, along with their reformist agenda. These elections have led to a ruling set-up that is status-quo oriented despite the opposite narrative of change in the system. It is difficult to see change on the horizon in any field of public policy. The Army will continue to control foreign policy vis-à-vis India, the United States, China, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Even the most ardent followers of Imran Khan cannot spell out his policy of eradicating corruption and creation of the promised 10 million jobs. Political dynasties are down but not out. Indeed, the Bhutto-Zardari family has expanded its support base in Sindh. The Sharifs will in all probability survive for the next round of elections.

On the other hand, the MQMs — along with their mohajir card — have lost ground at least for now. With no history or geography to support their ethnic agenda, Altaf Hussain’s demagogic leadership kept the party together for a generation. Many mohajirs have now voted for the pre-MQM mainstream politics via the PTI. In the KP, while the local leadership became controversial, the messianic appeal of Imran Khan remained unscathed. The PTI’s upward ambition to capture the federal government during the last five years provided an umbrella of safety to its patchwork coalition in Peshawar. Ethnic de-alignment has massively defined both mohajirs in Sindh and Pakhtuns in KP and Karachi. In Balochistan, ethnic de-alignment in general and passing of the older generation of tribal lords in particular opened the field for pro-establishment elements such as  ‘independents’; the new party BAP and the Islamic alliance MMA. Balochistan is up for grabs for the PTI if the stakeholders so decide. The PTI won from the military recruitment area of northern Punjab and the region of an incipient Seraiki movement in southern Punjab. The Islamic vote of the TLY variety made a cut into the PML-N’s vote in central Punjab.

The 2018 elections in Pakistan displayed a high level of controversy about Army interference and the higher judiciary’s partisanship in its verdict against the PML-N leadership. These concerns marred the fair and free character of the 2018 elections. The print and electronic media sank into the vortex of self-censorship after a series of negative developments such as the war of attrition between the establishment and The News and Dawn, and alleged intimidation of editors and journalists. There was a clear turnaround as far as the cause of freedom of expression was concerned. The legal and institutional relevance of the caretaker government has been nullified for two reasons: first, the election was organised essentially by the Election Commission of Pakistan, leaving little space for the caretakers in that area; two, the day-to-day governance was carried out by the civilian bureaucracy which had been reshuffled straight after the caretakers took over. The law-and-order situation was controlled – for example at the time of Nawaz Sharif’s arrival from London – by the Rangers and police. There is a case for a constitutional amendment to do away with the caretaker government.

The 2018 elections in Pakistan were non-policy and non-ideological in nature.

Pre-poll rigging became a prominent profile of the 2018 elections. The international media sharply criticised what it called judicialization of politics. Imran Khan’s image as the blue-eyed boy of the army further dragged the security apparatus into controversy. Meanwhile, social media emerged as the battleground for a fight-out between the PML-N and PTI cadres and workers. The former enjoyed the support of ‘independent’ intelligentsia who were hardly known as Nawaz Sharif supporters. They declared the 2018 elections as the dirtiest and most micro-managed elections ever and looked at them in the context of a tussle between the civil and military wings of the state. At the other end, there were Imran Khan’s party workers as well as nameless and faceless accusers and abusers from undisclosed sources. There was a lot of foul language used on both sides.

Finally, violence was far less visible than in the previous elections, despite a few deadly attacks in Quetta and elsewhere on the eve of elections. In 2013, the Taliban attacks targeted the ‘wrong’ kind of political parties — PPP, ANP and MQM, which therefore opted out of the election campaign. The military operation against terrorism from 2014 onward made the extra-systemic input of the Taliban and other terrorists redundant. However, in 2018 multiple Islamic parties ranging from the TLY and ASWJ to the revived MMA fielded hundreds of candidates throughout Pakistan. The establishment did not shy away from giving a public impression that it favoured the mainstreaming of the jihadi parties and extremist elements. Political analysts believed that the idea was to cut into the PML-N’s vote bank.

The 2018 elections in Pakistan were non-policy and non-ideological in nature. The basic currency was the traditional winner of the elections in the locality. The election strategy of the PTI, PML-N and PPP and their lesser competitors revolved around winning over the potential winners. Those who changed parties did not necessarily carry their voters along with them. Many lost the elections in the process. However, this strategy worked far better for Imran Khan than others because of two additional factors: one, the humiliation and removal of Nawaz Sharif from the political scene that made the PML-N’s electables look for an alternative platform and spread cynicism among the party voters; two, the unmistakable impression that Imran Khan was the establishment’s favourite and therefore destined to win.

Mohammad Waseem is Professor of Political Science at Department of Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences. He has written on ethnic, Islamic, constitutional, electoral and sectarian politics of Pakistan. He tweets @Waseem13134666. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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