pti lahore

With the most important general elections in Pakistan’s history only three weeks away, political pundits are finding it hard to confidently forecast the results. The emergence of a potent third force has changed the political landscape tremendously and PML-N is no longer the inevitable alternative to the departing PPP. To some, Imran Khan’s PTI has successfully wooed the majority of Pakistan’s urban middle class youth – the potential game changer – and will ride the tsunami of change to win a clear majority in the upcoming elections. Others however think that PTI’s rise is limited to social media and in the real world of constituency politics PTI does not have enough ‘electables’ to win more than a couple of dozen National Assembly seats. What is consistently underemphasized amidst wrangling between these two opposing sets of predictions is what the PTI has already achieved.

Ever since the fateful 1970 elections the voter turnout has been depressingly low and this is attributed largely to the hopelessness, and the resulting indifference, that have since gripped the masses. As there was hardly any fundamental difference between the two mainstream parties, Pakistan’s majority consistently thought neither was worthy of being voted into power and hence the average voter turnout stayed in the 40’s. Better turnout in rural, feudal-dominated constituencies pointed towards an evidently apolitical disposition of Pakistan’s urban middle class youth. PTI changed that by presenting this section of the population with an alternative to the two established parties; an alternative that was cleaner, had the benefit of being untested, and was not bad to look at. For the first time since the late 1960’s, tens of thousands of youngsters were attending political rallies and chanting slogans of change. Suddenly they had become aware, relevant, and powerful, and in the process the science of winning elections in Pakistan had changed. The once quiet and ignored urban youth were now the most vocal and the most sought after voters. Regardless of the outcome of the May 11th elections, this demographic is here to stay and will play a decisive role in several elections to come.

PTI has also changed the dynamics inside other political parties, to the benefit of the often marginalized voices of dissent. Historically politicos who differed with the party leadership were either condemned to obscurity, as their parties withdrew support, or were forced to put up with and defend party decisions they deemed unreasonable. The headlines of stalwarts like Javed Hashmi and Shah Mehmood Qureshi joining PTI made their native parties appear intolerant towards difference of opinion, and threatened to open the floodgates. Since the once haughty leaderships of the two mainstream parties could not afford a massive exodus, the center of power shifted away from the families ruling PPP and PML-N. Party heads were forced to tolerate scathing criticism from within the party; quite a novelty in Pakistan’s political culture. Using the opportunity some disgruntled politicians left for PTI, while others merely postured and were heard. As long as there remains a significantly potent third option, it will serve to check the dictatorial tendencies within the other parties.

While several analysts blame the protracted intra-party elections for the dip in PTI’s popularity as documented in the recent surveys, the exercise was indeed a step in the right direction. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a political party went through the exhausting process where ordinary party members directly voted for their office-bearers starting at the Union Council level. By giving them the right to vote for party leadership, PTI has shown party workers a glimpse of the power they had long been denied. Sooner or later this practice, or a variant, will become the necessity of all political parties as they will have to rise to the standard, to meet the demands of party workers. This will serve to introduce genuine democracy within political parties and will make the leadership answerable to the members.

During the nineties election campaigns mostly involved hurling allegations (often of a very personal nature) at each other, and when the candidates chose to be creative they resorted to making unrealistic promises. This time around however that is not going to be enough, as parties are being forced to back their rhetoric with some semblance of a pragmatic policy after PTI took the lead by releasing detailed policy papers on energy, economy, local government, education and health. The discourse has been fundamentally changed, as television anchors ask pointed questions and compare the different solutions proposed. While it may seem customary by the standards of a western democracy, in a nascent democracy like ours it is only a welcome change.

How the PTI fares on May 11th and thereafter remains to be seen. Regardless of that however, its resurgence has already paved the way for some very profound and positive changes in Pakistan’s political ethos. If the party’s contributions thus far are anything to go by, one can certainly look forward to a bright future for PTI.

Image Courtesy: Cafe Pyala