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People & Society

How candidates have cracked the code for winning elections

Updated Aug 05, 2018 06:02pm
A group of PMLN parliamentarians announces its departure from the party in Lahore this April
A group of PMLN parliamentarians announces its departure from the party in Lahore this April

On July 4, the Election Commission of Pakistan published its final list of candidates contesting elections for the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies across the country. It is a list full of very familiar names. In Punjab, for example, preliminary data compiled by American researchers Luke Sonnet and Colin Cookman shows that more than 80 per cent of candidates who had won in 2013 are in the hunt for another stint in either the National Assembly or a provincial assembly. This figure is only slightly lower for other provinces.

Repeat winners and contenders are a regular feature of Pakistani elections. Some politicians have spent multiple, unbroken stints in national or provincial legislatures. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, federal interior minister in the last elected administration, is looking for an unprecedented ninth consecutive win. Sheikh Rashid, the self-declared “son of Rawalpindi” who has also worked as a federal minister in a number of previous governments, is fighting for his eighth victory in nine elections.

If a serial winner is no more in the run, a member of his or her family still is. According to a 2013 study by Lahore-based academics Ali Cheema, Hassan Javid and Muhammad Farooq Naseer, 53.4 per cent of the National Assembly seats in Punjab were held by ‘dynastic’ politicians in 2008. A Herald study of the same year put the figure for dynastic holders of office across Pakistan at around 45 per cent.

The political system does not appear to matter much either. These repeat winners and their families have been around through martial laws, authoritarian regimes, controlled democracies and civilian transitions. They have often associated themselves with different parties in different election cycles and have sometimes fought and won independently.

The phenomenon of changing party affiliations in the run-up to an election, in fact, is mundanely familiar to anyone even vaguely acquainted with Pakistan’s electoral politics. No one was surprised when, in March 2018, a group of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) legislators resigned and announced that they were going to contest the next election on a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ticket. A month later, another group of legislators left the former party and made their way to the Bani Gala residence of the latter party’s chief, Imran Khan. In May, a third band of mutineers left what was fast perceived to be the sinking ship of Nawaz Sharif and his PMLN. When the final list of candidates came out, many, if not all, of these journeymen were now contesting on the PTI’s symbol of ‘bat’ instead of the PMLN’s ‘tiger’.

Take the example of just one of them. Raza Hayat Hiraj, who represented a National Assembly constituency (NA-156 Khanewal-1, now renumbered NA-150) in 2013-18, is contesting the upcoming election as a PTI candidate. In 2013, he had contested the election as an independent. Just six days after polling was held on May 11, he was sitting on the treasury benches as a PMLN man. In 2008, he had won on the ticket of what was a rump Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ). Five years further back in the past, in 2002, he had won the same constituency as a ticket holder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) but immediately after the election had joined its breakaway faction that initially called itself PPP-Patriot and later merged with PMLQ.

Harraj’s ability to have won three straight elections on three different tickets is cynically impressive but it is certainly not outlandish. He is just an exemplar of running tensions in Pakistani politics — between an electable candidate and a political party on the one hand and between electoral democracy and dynastic politics on the other.

These twin tensions explain why, on the eve of another election, the debate is once more about which party is fielding the more impressive roster of candidates. Some have already labelled this an election of “patricians, not plebs”. Even Imran Khan, the head of the erstwhile revolutionary PTI, has frankly admitted that he is in the “business of winning elections” and that one, after all, needs strong elites of good electable stock to win them.

This leaves open several questions: how did we end up with an ostensibly competitive electoral landscape but one where competition is between fairly familiar personalities; has a decade of democracy seen any progress in improving party-voter linkages so that a candidate transforms into a representative of a party platform, or a party brand, rather than being a self-contained end-point of local politics; is the current configuration of party-candidate-voter relations even sustainable for the future?

Understanding how we got here is fairly straightforward: at the root of the story lies a praetorian context that has produced hollowed out political parties. Since Pakistan’s first general election in 1970 (and the secession of East Pakistan), national electoral politics has been dominated by two parties, Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (that later became PMLN) and PPP. These parties have allied with and operated alongside a host of smaller ethnonationalist and Islamist parties. In 2011, the two biggest parties were joined by a third contender – a centrist insurgent PTI – as it broke through its humble origins to become a potent electoral force with national ambitions. Its performance in the 2013 general election exemplified this breakthrough as it garnered the second highest number of votes nationally and formed a coalition government in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Crucially, it also displaced PPP as the main opposition to PMLN in the most populous province of Punjab.

For almost the entirety of these four decades, the development of the party system in Pakistan has taken place under the long shadow of the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Under periods of military rule, party leaders have been imprisoned, banned or sent into exile. Parties themselves have been broken up through bribing and coercing their members (usually from the powerful landed class) and new ones propped up to support authoritarian regimes.

To provide an illustrative example, Nawaz Sharif (and his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League) was originally propped up and supported as a ‘clean businessman’ counterweight to the populist PPP in Punjab by General Ziaul Haq’s regime in 1981. Similarly, after Pervez Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999, his regime created a new ruling party by buying off and coercing key PMLN candidates and leaders to form PMLQ ahead of the 2002 election. Following that election, the regime further consolidated itself by forcing 14 elected members of the National Assembly from PPP to cross party lines through threats of anti-graft proceedings and by offering them material incentives.

Even during periods of civilian rule, such as from 1988 to 1999, the military exercised considerable control over party elites through a combination of backdoor lobbying, material incentives and coercion. In 1990, PMLN’s first victory on the national stage was partly down to the financing and horse-trading by the ISI. While this expansive interference has decreased under the current phase of democratisation (since 2008), reports and allegations of military officials influencing and manipulating political elites continue to surface periodically.

In this historical backdrop of democratic fragility and military dominance, political parties have survived as weak organisations. Their weaknesses have manifested themselves in key forms, such as highly centralised and personalised leadership, the absence of internal democracy, weak local organisations and, most relevantly, the persisting reliance on moneyed elites as election candidates.

The bleakest bit of news for Pakistan’s democracy is that these trends manifest themselves in all major parties to varying degrees. In all the three big parties, top leaders exercise unhindered influence on party affairs. For PMLN and PPP, this entails dynastic control by a particular family, respectively the Sharifs and the Bhuttos (and now the Zardaris through marriage). Major internal decision-making is carried out by members of these families or their closest associates. Even bodies tasked with managing party affairs at the national and provincial level are constituted through the personal preferences of leaders. This, along with the fact that there are only nominal elections (‘selections’ would be a correct term) for party positions, means there are limited institutional pathways for progression for party loyalists. Their careers (and their definition of loyalty) are largely shaped by proximity to top leadership.

In the first year after its emergence on the national stage in 2011, PTI attempted to differentiate itself from such extant political culture by aspiring for a more democratic form of party organisation. For this purpose, it twice initiated a process of internal election for its district, provincial and national offices. As the two exercises progressed towards the voting stage, implosive infighting and elite factionalism forced Imran Khan to cancel the process and leverage his moral authority within the party and its supporters to appoint office-bearers of his own choosing. Since then, the party has continued to follow a highly centralised and personalised blueprint of internal governance, not dissimilar to that of the two other main parties.

The centralised, personalised and ad hoc nature of governance within parties is also reflected in their lack of organisation at the local levels. Party leaders rarely invest in any permanent infrastructure on the ground and, instead, choose to operate through personalised contacts and locally influential power brokers. The lack of clear pathways through which party members at a lower tier may rise up the ranks reinforces a lack of interest on their part in institutionalising structures at the local level.

The absence of party infrastructure is particularly pervasive across rural areas, where the members of the landed class participate in village-based factional contestation within their own geographic domains. In urban areas, the face of local organisation for all three of the main parties is almost always a centrally or provincially appointed party leader who contests for the National Assembly or provincial assembly and runs political affairs through his or her own personal networks. During election season, the personal properties of these local leaders, such as a residence or a business office, double as party offices. If they win the election, these places eventually become their public contact points.

While party leaders usually profess an open door policy, research conducted by Ali Cheema and his associates in 2017 in Lahore shows that the sheer size of urban constituencies, coupled with parties’ lack of organisational presence on the ground, means that less than 10 per cent of the electorate experiences contact with a party representative outside of election time. One key outcome of this lack of organisation is that, barring the once hegemonic ethnonationalist party in Karachi, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), no party has a well functioning and institutionalised machine for attracting and mobilising poor urban voters through ideological incorporation and patronage provision.

But, most importantly, it is the candidate recruitment strategies that reflect the hollowed out nature, personalised processes of internal governance and lack of organisational structures that best all political parties. As Canada-based Pakistani researcher Mariam Mufti documented in her doctoral dissertation, the decision to select particular politicians for elected office in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures lies with a party’s top leadership and depends on its ability to woo the right candidates.

In the absence of robust internal processes of career growth, a primary criterion for this selection is an individual candidate’s ‘electability’ in his or her home constituency. This leads to a preference for locally dominant elites who are able to maintain islands of authority and possess their own networks for patronage distribution. The preference for electable elites is particularly salient in rural areas and, as mentioned earlier, leads to localised dynasties getting entrenched in a power structure. This also explains why nearly two-thirds of elected legislators from Punjab between 1990 and 2007 followed or were followed by a family member into electoral politics.

In exchange for their support in winning elections, these influential candidates are provided access to public officials, constituency development funds and material incentives for self-enrichment. This transactional exchange means that parties remain beholden to the interests and whims of dominant societal segments. It also means that, in order to retain their access to power and pelf, powerful candidates may switch allegiances from a party when it loses popularity or is not seen as coming to power.

For example, as documented by political scientist Niloufer Siddiqui, a remarkably high 65 per cent of all those who had contested more than one election between 1988 and 2008 remained associated with more than one party during this period. Overall, as many as 42 per cent of all candidates who finished in the top three places in any National Assembly constituency in 2013 had contested at least one of the two previous elections – in 2008 and 2002 – either from a different party or as independents.

While the prevalence of ‘freelancing’ elites is a dominant feature of party politics, particularly in rural Punjab, it does not mean that parties and party leaders do not cultivate loyal followings or ideational appeal with voters in other localities. PPP (and the Bhutto family), for example, has historically retained near-hegemonic popularity in large parts of rural Sindh where its politics takes on a populist and Sindhi ethnonationalist overtone. As the party enjoys sufficient leeway and autonomy in a number of safe seats, it can afford to reward loyalists by recruiting them as election candidates. This leads to all sorts of colloquial conclusions from observers of Sindhi politics who insist that up to 70 per cent of the vote cast for a winning PPP candidate is the party’s vote. Though, naturally, this does not take away from the fact that the paucity of organisational coherence and party-sponsored resources means that these winning candidates are still likely to be from the landed elite.

Although to a lesser extent than PPP in Sindh, Nawaz Sharif and PMLN, and Imran Khan and PTI, have also carved out an independent appeal with a sizable cross section of voters in urban Punjab. The former has done this through an emphasis on infrastructure development and private sector-led economic growth, while the latter has done it through ideational appeals to its anti-corruption, meritocracy agenda. As a result, the city of Lahore, considered to be the home base for both parties, offers a space where party loyalists are safely rewarded with leadership positions and are selected as election candidates without encountering a high electoral penalty in terms of lost votes.

However, the weaknesses at the local level highlighted earlier means that – even with the existence of loyalists and the direct ideational appeal of a party and its top leadership – mobilising voters and supporters requires organisational and financial resources that mainstream parties rarely possess. Inevitably, this means that when electoral candidacies and other leadership positions are distributed among loyalists, only those people qualify who already exercise a degree of authority in their areas, operate patronage networks with help from locally influential elites and carry financial heft to finance party activity and contest elections.

As one PMLN leader in Lahore told me only half in jest, the party operates on a “self-finance” model and those who cannot finance the party’s work or their own election campaigns have to “sit at home”. Therefore, regardless of whether the party is choosing a strong electable candidate in a competitive constituency or rewarding a loyalist with a party office and a candidacy in a safer constituency, its key personnel are all likely to be wealthy and locally influential.

The persistence of elites as nearly the only category of politician is certainly damaging to the egalitarian aspiration of Pakistan’s democracy, but it can and does coexist with stronger party identities. Urban areas, as mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, have already demonstrated this coexistence to varying degrees. Firmly partisan voters exist for all major parties and many of them are unlikely to be swayed by their specific election candidate. Some researchers think this facet will eventually extend itself (and probably already has to some extent) to candidate-dominated areas too.

Independent researcher Tahir Mehdi, for example, suggests that there are hardly any constituencies that “habitually” return to independent candidates and that there are almost no ‘electables’ who can be assured of victory without having party affiliation. 

The point is easy to illustrate. Hardly any candidate who has won at least three elections to the National Assembly since 1985 has done so as an independent. In the 2002 election, 730 independent candidates were in the run for the National Assembly, including 166 from the tribal areas. Together they polled 2.72 million votes from across Pakistan and 24 of them won the poll but half of them were from the tribal areas where political parties were not allowed to contest at the time.

The results of the two previous elections can be cited to counter-argue that the total number of independent candidates, the votes they are polling and the number of winners from among them are all, indeed, on the rise. In the 2008 election, the number of National Assembly candidates contesting as independents rose to 1,166 – including 183 from the tribal areas. Their vote share also increased to 3.9 million and they ended up winning an unprecedented 30 seats though 11 out of these were still in the tribal areas where political parties were not functioning. In 2013, independents, numbering 2,356, collectively polled more than 5.9 million votes for the National Assembly from across Pakistan, only around one million less than PPP’s total votes, and won 28 seats. Just seven of them were in the tribal areas; most of the rest were in Punjab and Balochistan. Whether the trends thrown up by these elections are an exception to the rule of independents not winning enormously will, however, be severely tested in the coming elections. A large number of candidates is banking on just that — that the trend will continue and individual candidates will matter more than the parties.

While all this does not preclude the fact that party affiliation can change in every election – which is a slightly limited version of ‘freelancing’ compared to being an outright independent – the relatively limited electoral success by independents does signify the importance of holding a party ticket (or a political ‘brand’).

What could lead the expansion of party identity at the expense of electable candidates, among the electorate, if it ever happens? It seems the answer will lie in the domain of the long-term, in slow-moving structural changes rather than in any purposeful action within the domain of politics itself.

What I mean by that is parties are unlikely to reform themselves and suddenly become adept at organising themselves at the grass-roots level. That boat has long sailed, since the 1970s to be precise, and the chances of it returning are low. Instead, it is demography and economic transformation that is likely to herald this change. The first one is fairly simple — increased urbanisation means that the electorate is moving away, slowly and gradually but surely, from being beholden to influential rural elites to becoming associated with party identities in urban spaces.

The second one is a bit more complex but at its heart lies the role of the private media and the creation of a national media market. The development of partisan identity and the salience of parties as institutions has certainly increased because of electronic and social media. People now recognise leaders, their second-tier associates and what they say or do on a regular basis. More importantly, the same images and sounds are shared across the country. It was this across-the-nation media coverage that propelled Imran Khan’s PTI to become the second-largest vote-getter in 2013 in areas where the party had previously been completely absent. It is the same driver of PMLN’s popularity in parts of Punjab that still remain physically untouched by Shehbaz Sharif’s vision of development.

Naturally, this remains a hypothesis. A truly national and unified media market may be around the corner but we cannot be fully certain that it will change the voter-candidate relation in favour of the party. There are, however, glimpses of this happening already and the media could prove to be an important arbiter in the future as well.

Till then, it seems that political discourse and electoral reality will remain wedded to the electability of candidates as well as to the parties that seem to be in pursuit of these candidates.


Correction: In a previous version of the story, we stated that independent candidates "polled 2.72 million votes from across Pakistan but only 12 of them – all from the tribal areas where political parties were not allowed to contest at the time – could win the poll". However, 24 of them won the poll but half of them were from the tribal areas where political parties were not allowed to contest at the time. We apologise for this error.


The writer is a columnist for daily Dawn and a senior consultant responsible for conducting the Periodic Economy Analysis (PEA) for the programme Consolidating Democracy In Pakistan (CDIP).

Additional research by: Momina Manzoor Khan and Manal Khan


This was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.