Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Third Way

The success of PTI in the general elections represents a significant shift in Pakistani politics. A third power has arrived to counteract the influence of PPP and PML-N.

For a shift to occur, it isn't enough that a party simply carves out room for itself on the political scene. It must do so on the basis of some new political idea or strategy that hasn't been tried before.

In the case of PTI, it can claim to be the first truly democratic party in Pakistan on the basis of the highly visible and transparent internal elections that it conducted leading up to the general elections. When these internal elections were conducted, many onlookers believed that PTI would have been better off delaying them given the destabilizing nature of party elections. However, PTI proved that internal elections could take place and party unity could still be maintained. That PTI was able to reorganize themselves after the internal elections and launch an effective election campaign displays a level of party professionalism rarely seen in Pakistan's political culture.

Another characteristic that sets PTI apart is consistency regarding policy. For example, it has steadily maintained a clear anti-drone stance. For better or for worse, it has refused to compromise on this issue. This is in stark contrast to the policy adopted by the previous PPP government which tacitly allowed drone attacks while publicly condemning them.

However, there are several grounds on which people argue against PTI being a third force.

There is the fact that PTI has only been able to form a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Even if the party manages to set itself apart from other parties, it only has representation in KP. The argument is that this isn't enough representation to cause any major political shift.

However, parliamentary presence is not the only indicator of popularity. For example, PML-N has more than three times the number of National Assembly seats as PTI. However, it has only won twice as many votes overall. These results don't even take into account the vote-rigging that occurred in Punjab where PML-N won the brunt of its National Assembly seats. The same can be said for the vote-rigging that occurred in Karachi. Eyewitnesses and vote counts testify to PTI's substantial popularity here despite the near omniscient presence of MQM.

It is clear, then, that the alternative appeal of PTI is not relegated to KP.

Another complaint that is frequently brought forward is that PTI came to power using political tactics not much different from other parties.

For example, PTI brought political veterans like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Javed Hashmi into its ranks. As Makhdooms, they derive much - if not all - of their political capital from their personalities and not their policy positions. By engaging in this practice, is PTI not perpetuating personality-based politics in Pakistan?

There is no doubt that these are expedient measures which PTI used to gain a short-term advantage. However, as a party which has national ambitions, PTI needs to work within the very political culture that it seeks to change. And this political culture is a direct product of a social culture which is frequently centered on powerful individuals, clans and families. It is that culture which produces the phenomenon of personality-based politics.

Many critics also point out that the party engaged in the age-old practice of seat adjustment with the likes of Jamaat Islaami and Sheikh Rasheed. This tactic is essentially an alliance of convenience which parties enter into to secure seats. It is rarely an alliance based on vision. The worst part is that it degrades the political process by removing the element of competition between parties.

This, however, is once again a by-product of Pakistani society. Many voters simply refuse to vote along the lines of ideology. And where there is no demand for a competition of ideas, there will be no supply of ideas. It is within this context that PTI - like all other parties - agreed to enter into seat adjustments. The difference is that with PTI, there is at least some room for ideology. With most other parties, there is little to none.

In any case, this is all set against the backdrop of elections in which many parties came to power through coercion, voter intimidation, and rigging. Gaining power through personality-based politics and seat adjustments may be short-sighted. But it doesn't compare to stealing a mandate.

PTI must use the mandate that it has gained to solidify its position and push through its policies wherever it has gained power. KP represents a major challenge in terms of security and success here will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the country as well. KP, then, will be one of the major tests of whether PTI represents a true third way.