Image credit: Pakistan General Elections 2018 by Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0

Written by Rai Mansoor Imtiaz.

The 2018 general election is quite significant in relation to the process of democratic transition in Pakistan. This was only the second time in the country’s electoral history that an elected government had completed its period of tenure and transferred power to the newly elected government.

The elections of July 2018 also showed a radical shift in the voting behaviour of rural Punjabis, where a new voting behaviour – that of ‘voting under the political charisma of the parties’ leaders’ – emerged. This shift means it is now necessary to revise the existing scholarship on electoral behaviour in Pakistan, which has in particular emphasised the politics of landlordism and biradari (caste system) in rural Punjab.

Critics of Pakistan’s electoral politics have not only exaggerated the influence of the military over the elections, but they have also failed to notice a radical shift which has taken place in the rural politics of Punjab

However, scholars of the hybrid regime in Pakistan instead choose to focus on electoral process and voters’ choices in third consecutive general elections, pointed finger at the victory of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) due to alleged involvement of military. According to these scholars, the military establishment intervened in the elections of 2018 and stole the mandate in favour of PTI.

The military’s involvement…

This scholarly literature presents a fragmented and unilateral conclusion about the outcome of the 2018 general election because voter choice is excluded from the studies. Examining the electoral process through the lens of the military’s taken-for-granted involvement, scholars have disregarded the role of voter choice and voting behaviour, which ultimately determine the transfer of power from one political party to another.

Critics of the 2018 election overlook how voters competed and participated in the electoral process, and they fail to notice how voters’ choices were shaped by the narratives of the competing parties – the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N), led by Nawaz Sharif, and Imran Khan’s PTI. What they should really be asking is how voters reacted to the competing political narratives which emerged in a political struggle between the military, Sharif and Khan.

The military launched two far-right religious parties for the 2018 elections: Tehrik e Labyk Pakistan (TLP) and Allah o Akbar Party (AAP). Although neither party won any seats in the National Assembly (NA), they made a significant dent in the baralevi-sunni and wahabi (religious sects) vote bank of the PML-N in many electoral constituencies of Punjab as well as in other provinces.

It can be seen that TLP caused the defeat of the PML-N in many NA seats in Punjab, since the margin of defeat was less than the votes polled by the TLP candidates. Various electoral analysts allege, however, that the PML-N candidates were pressurised by the intelligence agencies and forced either to switch party or to contest the election independently. While it is true that seven PML-N candidates from south Punjab did return their party tickets at the last minute and left the party without any possibility of fielding a replacement, electoral analysts seem rather biased in their explanation of this.

…is unproven

Here I offer a different argument. For instance, according to a report by the New York Times, if the military threatened the candidate Rana Siraj, then he must be a popular candidate and the intelligence agencies would have predicted his victory before the election. However, the election results show that Siraj was not in any neck-to-neck race and in fact he was defeated by a margin of 14,000 votes. This is a considerable margin in relation to the election of a seat in a provincial assembly. Therefore, I do not believe that the military played any role in the resignations of the seven PML-N candidates.

Take another example. Amjad Farooq Khan Khosa was a PML-N candidate for the NA-190 seat but he left the PML-N and won the election against PTI without any party ticket. If the army had wanted to support PTI in the NA-190 constituency, then Amjad Farooq Khan Khosa should have withdrawn his nomination paper in favour of the PTI candidate. Instead, it was a very close contest and he won by a margin of just 225 votes against the PTI candidate. Again, if the army was backing the PTI candidate, that margin of 225 votes could easily have been dealt with by rejecting the same number of votes before the polling results were announced.

Another PML-N candidate, Sultan Mehmood Hinjra, also left the party and contested independently. If the military was behind his resignation, then his withdrawal should have favoured the PTI candidate. Instead, another independent candidate won the election – by a margin of 9,821 votes – while the PTI candidate came in third with 48,858 votes.

Electoral analysts are clearly biased in their explanations. They do not consider many other significant factors that could have led to the withdrawal of the party tickets. For instance, Chaudhary Asim Nazir, the PML-N candidate for NA-101 Faisalabad, abandoned his ticket because he wanted another ticket for his nephew, Muhammad Masood Nazir, for the NA-105 constituency. Because the PML-N leadership was unwilling to agree to this, he left the party and contested the seat independently, defeating the PTI candidate by a huge margin of 61,237 votes.

Media reporting

The Pakistani media were certainly biased in their reporting of the electoral campaign for the 2018 general election, and it is true that the reporting of some private media channels such as ARY, 92 News and Bol News seemed to be pro-Khan. Consequently, many electoral experts claim that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, controlled the elections and handed victory to PTI.

It was because of the reporting by these media channels that Imran Khan’s slogan of change became popular among the people and he was able to expose the corruption, the money laundering and the bad governance of his rivals during his political rallies and electoral campaign. Contrary to the coverage given to Khan by the private media channels, Nawaz Sharif was unable to get any real coverage for his slogan to ‘vote ko izzat do’ against the ‘khalai makhlooq’ (aliens) – the term he used for the military.

Journalists such as Gul Bukhari, Raza Rumi and Taha Siddiqui, who attempted to publicise Sharif’s narrative, were harassed by the ISI. Following the Dawn leaks incident, the military threatened many outspoken journalists and forcefully cracked down on news channels like Dawn and Geo, telling them to tone down their reporting of Sharif’s attack on the military’s involvement in politics.

Voter behaviour

And yet, despite all these sanctions, Sharif’s narrative against the ‘khalai makhlooq’ was appreciated by the voters of Punjab, which helped his party to win 129 seats in Punjab’s Provincial Assembly, whereas PTI secured only 123.

The military did force voters within their domain to vote for PTI, for example in the case of Anjaman Mozahereen Punjab (Tenants Association of Punjab) in Okara. Nonetheless, although the peasants of Okara were compelled by the military to vote for PTI, the PML-N swept the polls in all the constituencies of Okara, which indicates that the people voted for PML-N against the military’s wishes.

The central argument of the critics of the 2018 general election is that it was the election of the electables, as 45 Punjab ‘electables’ joined PTI just before the elections. However, if the military was backing 45 electables, then all of them should have won the election. But the election outcome reveals that PML-N candidates defeated more than half of these so-called electables.

The critics have consistently failed to focus on people’s voting behaviour or the factors which shape and influence voter choice. Their analysis is limited to the military’s involvement on behalf of PTI, but it seems to me that any research about the electoral process which excludes voter choice, behaviour and participation from its analysis will only be able to offer a partial understanding at best.

Charismatic leaders

Through my own study of voter choice in the 2018 elections I found that the dominant voting behaviour among voters was ‘voting under the political charisma of the parties’ leaders’. Voters supported Nawaz Sharif’s and Imran Khan’s respective narratives of ‘giving respect to the vote’ and ‘struggling for a new Pakistan’.  This ‘vote-linkage’ emerged through political awareness, which came into being through the popularity of the narratives of the political parties’ leaders.

Strikingly, this political awareness weakened the traditional determinants of voter choice such as biradari and landlordism. Voting under the political charisma of the leader also challenged, resisted and weakened the military’s control over the elections.

For instance, on 28 July 2017 Nawaz Sharif was disqualified under the judicial dictatorship over the corruption charges against him and sentenced to prison along with his daughter, yet millions of people voted for him during the general election of 2018. And although Imran Khan tried his hardest, with the help of a dedicated media cell, to build a strong narrative against Sharif’s corruption and bad governance, the PML-N nonetheless won 61 of Punjab’s 141 seats for the National Assembly, and almost swept the board in central Punjab.

This was the first time that the head of the largest political party in Pakistan alleged the military were behind the terrorist activities in neighbouring states, just before the elections, and then won the majority of the votes of Punjab. This indicates that although the military tried to use a number of different strategies to influence the polls, the people still voted for Sharif and his narrative against ‘khalai makhlooq’.

The landed and biradari elites were less influential in the 2018 general election, as many of the big political elites chose not to contest the election as independent candidates if they were not awarded the party tickets of prominent political parties like the PML-N and PTI.

Owing to the exclusion of any consideration of voter choice in their studies, the critics of Pakistan’s electoral politics and scholarly commentators of the 2018 general election have not only exaggerated the influence of the military over the elections, but they have also failed to notice a radical shift which has taken place in the rural politics of Punjab and given birth to voting under the influence of charismatic leadership.

Rai Mansoor Imtiaz Khan is a postgraduate research student at the University of Nottingham where he is affiliated with the Asia Research Institute. His research interests include Comparative Politics, South Asian Politics, Party Politics, Voting Behaviour and Electoral Process.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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