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Growing Pains: Reflections on Party Development in Punjab and KP

Growing Pains: Reflections on Party Development in Punjab and KP

In the limelight (photo: Dawn)

In the limelight (photo: Dawn)

In the past month or so, two unrelated and currently ongoing stories have highlighted some interesting aspects of political party development in Pakistan.  The first is Pervaiz Khattak’s Chief Minister-ship and PTI’s management of the coalition in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and the second are the debates, or lack thereof, on local government elections in Punjab.

The reason why I bring them up now is because of a fairly common analytical strand that emerged right after the general elections, positing that there was a greater degree of party-based voting this time around, as opposed to the last few elections. On the face of it, this assertion made a lot of sense. Random third-tier candidates flying the PML-N banner won seats against more entrenched ‘electables’ in Punjab, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa returned a whole host of first-timers to the provincial and national assemblies – nearly all of them on PTI tickets.

The assertion gains further credibility when you factor in that the PML-N, in particular, was surprised at its own seat haul from Punjab. Party insiders (and outsiders) placed the party at 80-85 seats on the night before the election (based on perceived competition in each constituency), so the 115 they got from the province on election day was a tad unexpected.

The placement of party-vote over candidate though suggests that something fundamentally changed in the way parties were structured, and perceived by the public – more as institutions with electoral machines and collective interests, as opposed to merely a collection of individuals – and the way they reinvented themselves as coherently projectable brands.

Out of the two – party structure and branding – the latter is definitely more visible. The PPP’s history of meta-narrative, symbolism and party-based identification, and the PTI’s utilization of all kinds of media outlets forced the PML-N to remodel its campaign as well. Curiously enough though, the party playing catch-up gained the most in terms of electoral outcomes, in the province with arguably the greatest level of media consumption.

While the media side is easy to capture, it’s much more difficult to trace changes in party organization, structure, and internal thinking. The PTI’s internal elections, and its Union Council level volunteer efforts were publicly flaunted, but the PML-N and the PPP remained fairly silent on the issue of structure and organization. This brings me back to the two stories highlighted at the start. The first one is a latest in a series of reports on the slightly strained relationship between CM KP and PTI’s central executive committee.

This, while being of analytical interest, is hardly surprising.

Pervaiz Khattak is a seasoned, fairly sensible Pashtun politician. He’s spent a fair amount of time in and out of power in KP, and he hails from a well-connected, well-entrenched family of the Peshawar valley. He was able to ensure that candidates of his choice won the intra-party polls in the province, as opposed to those being backed by Asad Qaiser, and he ensured that his nominations secured party tickets and reserved seats in the assemblies. His personal political economy – the connections he has, the pockets he’s greased, and the lobbies he responds to, make him no different from any other senior-level provincial figure in any other party in the country.

Which is why he probably doesn’t take too kindly to consultants from Lahore telling him what to do in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

This arrangement poses an interesting dilemma for a party in the nascent stages of institution building. Does Imran Khan intervene directly to ensure ‘greater synergy’ between the party’s vision and its implementation in KP? Or does he leave this managerial task to the Central Executive Committee, in a bid to institutionalize a relationship between the provincial and the federal chapter? The fact is Pervaiz Khattak, and his chosen party officials, do not represent the PTI’s self-projected image. Even after the elections, the party’s appeal in Punjab, and even in Karachi, rests on its ability to cultivate a consumable image of difference between itself and the others. Khattak does not portray that image of difference the same way that, say, someone like Asad Umar does. In the same vein, the party also realizes the importance of getting it right while in power, so as to cash-in on the PML-N slipping up over the next few years.

For a political scientist or a sociologist studying party behavior and movement-to-party transitions, this is pretty fertile stuff. Here’s a party trying to find a balance between technocratic policy formulations, and local political economies that are produced as an exigency of electoral politics. This by no means suggests that the provincial leadership in KP is incompetent, corrupt, or unable to govern, (it’s far too early to make an assertion like that). All it says is that the PTI’s political fortunes rest on its ability to govern in a flashy, marketable manner, without pushing its provincial leadership too hard.


The second story I flagged at the start was about the Punjab government’s long-awaited decision to legislate on a new local government act. For those who haven’t followed this closely, Punjab is the only province that hasn’t enacted a local government law in the last 5 years. The 2001 ordinance has been amended at least thrice, and the LHC has generously provided them with multiple stay orders, allowing the government to run the district and sub-district administrative machinery through bureaucrats.

The ruling party’s reluctance to hold local government polls is hardly a secret. Shahbaz Sharif needs 5, maybe 6, bureaucrats to run the entire province, which in his mind remains infinitely preferable over 36 (67 if the rural-urban divide gets statutory backing under the proposed bill) elected representatives. This particular reluctance cannot, and in all likelihood, will not withstand constitution-backed pressure from the Supreme Court. Local government elections will be held in the next 6-10 months under the new law that will get rubber-stamped by an overwhelmingly skewed provincial assembly. What’s more curious though is the party’s internal debate on whether these elections should be held on party or non-party lines. It’s curious, and slightly mind-boggling because no party in the PML-N’s current position would fear party-based local government polls. And yet here they are, still dilly-dallying over this issue, showcasing their lack of trust in local party organization, their fear of (mostly imagined) organized competitors, and their preference for harvesting diffused pockets of socio-political capital in the shape of local patrons, as opposed to planting party workers in an organized, hierarchical chain.

This is what makes me wonder about two things: the first is this claim related to Punjab witnessing the rise of a consolidated party-vote, and the second is the PML-N’s long-term future as a political party.

With the first, I honestly believe that the PML-N brand worked well enough in most urban (and urbanizing parts), without posing as too many things in one go. It represented improved service delivery, electricity, and a tighter control over fiscal resources, and that’s the extent to which it went. Ideology, in the shape of a socially conservative, fiscal minded worldview floats just beneath the surface – rearing its head in electoral spaces where it attains greater traction – and leadership appeal is tied in with a cultivated image of Punjabi virtue (family-oriented, rakh-rakhao type people).

On the point concerning the party’s long-term future, there are several worrying trends. The first is the party’s narrow decision-making structure that functions as the party and the government’s brain in both Punjab and the center. Regardless of what he himself might think, Rana Mashood Ahmed Khan (MPA) is not responsible for any of the thinking currently happening in the Punjab government; that particular part is dealt with by the Sharif brothers, chosen family members, and a few trusted MNAs and bureaucrats. The second worrying trend is a lack of intra-party organization, and a failure to institutionalize district, tehsil, and union level party-offices as focal points of political and electoral authority. Without this, the consolidation of a party-vote bank that’s able to transcend individual-centered politics in repeated elections would simply not happen.

The challenges faced by PTI and PML-N are quite different, yet they both form important facets of Pakistan’s relationship with democratic politics. With one uninterrupted electoral cycle out of the way, we’re seeing varying degrees of deliberation on party-government relationships, and internal organization and structure. The next major point of interest remains the local government elections, and it’ll be interesting to see how both these parties emerge from that exercise.

About Umair Javed

Umair is a political economy researcher based at the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP).

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