The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) appears to be in trouble. Just two months away from the 2018 general election, the party has been hit by a wave of defections, with legislators and potential electoral candidates jumping ship to join other parties, most noticeably the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
What started as a trickle following the Supreme Court’s verdict against Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Papers case last year became a deluge in April 2018 when a group of the party’s sitting members of the National Assembly and the Punjab Assembly, as well as former legislators, came together to form the Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz, ostensibly cobbled together to press for greater rights and the creation of a new province for the people of southern Punjab.
Those who formed the core of the Mahaz announced that they would be leaving PMLN because of the party’s failure to respond to their demands during its time in power. They subsequently decided to merge with PTI to contest the 2018 election. Since then, PMLN has been hit with even more defections, with every week bringing news of fresh departures from the party across Punjab. Indeed, most observers expect the rate of defections to increase now that the party’s government has completed its tenure.
Conventional wisdom suggests that if the PMLN continues to hemorrhage support in this way, it will be trounced in July when the nation goes to the polls. This idea is born out of the notion that electoral candidates possess independent bases of support that allow them to win elections regardless of their party affiliation. The argument here is that powerful local ‘electables’ possessing considerable economic resources, social status and political connections to the state and other politicians, can use their influence to mobilise support based on kinship and other social ties and to cobble together vote blocs underpinned by their ability to provide patronage to their supporters.
Following from this, it is assumed that when a candidate defects to a rival party, they take their voters with them, suggesting the existence of a candidate-centric framework of electoral competition rather than a party-centric one in which voters would prefer to vote based on loyalty to a political party rather than to an individual.
There is some evidence to support this view of electoral competition. It is widely recognised that political parties in Pakistan are poorly institutionalised, in the sense that they lack discrete ideological identities and the organisational capacity to allow them to hold effective campaigns capable of making direct, programmatic appeals to voters. These shortcomings are often attributed to the discontinuous and abortive nature of the democratic process in Pakistan where repeated episodes of authoritarian rule and behind-the-scenes manipulation by the military establishment have undermined the development of political parties while simultaneously encouraging a kind of localised, opportunistic politics that militates against the emergence of more robust party identities and apparatuses. In this context, parties are arguably trapped in a race to the bottom, competing with each other to attract powerful local electables who can win votes in the absence of a robust party structure.
Nonetheless, there are some important caveats that need to be borne in mind when taking this view of electoral competition in Pakistan. Firstly, the experience of previous elections suggests that the assumption of candidate-centric politics is not one that applies uniformly across the country. As the example of parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) shows, there are constituencies where the party label clearly matters more than the identity of the candidate and where loyalty to a party trumps allegiance to any individual candidate.
Secondly, the data suggests that the number of candidates who are able to win elections independently of a party label is actually relatively low; in 2013, for example, of the 2,356 candidates who contested as independents, only 28 were able to win seats in the National Assembly. This is an important figure because it suggests that the number of individuals capable of winning elections purely based on their independent sources of support is not as high as is often assumed. While there are undoubtedly powerful ‘electable’ politicians, their chances of winning are improved by alignment with the right party. What this means is that the choice of party to defect to matters more than the act of defection itself; historically, ‘electable’ politicians have found defection to be a poor electoral strategy if they end up backing the wrong party.
This argument makes more sense when looking at some of the reasons why politicians defect. Putting aside the unlikely possibility that most defections are triggered by questions of ideology or principle, grievances around the allocation of party tickets and distribution of patronage generally tend to be among the principal reasons why candidates choose to move from one party to another.
In a context where most mainstream parties are home to multiple political factions, often drawn from the same constituencies, disgruntlement over the allotment of tickets and the disbursement of patronage can lead some politicians to abandon their parties in search of a better deal. Related to this is how some politicians actively seek to gain a slice of the political pie by aligning themselves with the party that seems best placed to form a government and, therefore, be able to provide them access to political power and state resources. This is precisely why, for example, parties like PMLN in Punjab have historically witnessed such intense competition over the allocation of party tickets. Finally, it must also be acknowledged that inducements from non-democratic actors also play a role in generating defections, with parties that lose favour with the establishment witnessing a not-coincidental exodus of candidates and supporters prior to elections.
As such, while considering how and why defections are likely to hurt PMLN in 2018, it is necessary to consider a couple of key questions. Firstly, is the party backed by voters who are likely to support it on the basis of its performance in government and its ideology, such as it is, or is it mostly reliant on the services of local electables to mobilise voters? Secondly, does PTI represent a credible alternative to PMLN, not as a purely political entity but as a party that seems poised to be able to win the sufficient number of parliamentary seats that would allow it to form a government and consequently be in a position to control the levers of state patronage?
If PMLN has managed to build popular support for itself as a party, defecting to a rival party is unlikely to yield electoral dividends, regardless of the identity of the defecting politician. Similarly, if enough voters and candidates do not view PTI as a credible alternative to PMLN in terms of its ability to win an election and seize power, those who have already defected to it from PMLN may have ended up choosing the wrong party to support. At present, it is not at all clear what the answer to these questions is.
While the number of politicians abandoning PMLN is not small, it has also not reached a level that would represent an existential threat to the party fortunes. There is also some reason to believe that the party’s narratives of good governance and victimisation at the hands of the establishment have shored up its support in northern and central Punjab.
Similarly, while PTI has embraced a wide range of electable candidates over the past few months, its path to an election victory, particularly in Punjab, remains uncertain. This uncertainty is not helped by how outfits like the Mahaz may end up being viewed as nothing more than vehicles through which non-democratic actors are attempting to manipulate the results of the 2018 election. After all, the issue of creating a province in south Punjab had led to a similar round of defections in 2013 as well. But the entire issue died down once the political dust had settled after the elections.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
This was originally published in Herald's June 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.