Parties and their high-sounding propaganda
Party manifesto and party leaders talk of high policy matters. High sounding and wild promises are made without paying any attention to financial and administrative imperatives for delivering on these promises. All political parties are promising to turn Pakistan into a genuine welfare state, overcome electricity shortages altogether and create jobs for the youth. Nawaz Sharif is talking of running a bullet train from Karachi to Peshawar. Imran Khan would ensure that the people get jobs in Pakistan so that they do not have to go abroad for that purpose. These statements get loud applause in public meetings and thus achieve the objective of drawing popular attention. However, no leader is willing to say how he would fulfill these and other promises when Pakistan’s economy is faltering and they have no definite plan to salvage it.
Most political leaders are unable or unwilling to understand the threat of religious extremism and militancy and terrorism to Pakistan internal political coherence and economic stability. The views of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan on religious extremism and terrorism are naïve, if not deceitful, because of their desire not to lose the voters with Islamist and hardline Islamist voters that seem to increase over time in the Punjab.
There is a lot of negative propaganda against each other in the speeches of the party leaders in public meetings. The major focus of Imran Khan’s speeches is on wild promises and a sharp criticism of the PML-N and the PPP leadership. The PML-N leadership is targeting Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan for bitter criticism. The major target is Imran Khan who is viewed by the PMLN as cutting heavily in its traditional vote bank in the Punjab.
The PML-N also projects its last rule (February 1997-October 1999) as the golden era of governance in Pakistan and highlights the performance of the N’s Punjab government (April 2008-Marrch 2013). The PPP leadership is not on election campaign trail because of security reasons. It seems to have gone underground. This is for the first time in the PPP history that none of its leaders of national standing is engaged in public meetings and rallies. However, it has launched a massive media campaign which is partly negative, focusing on what it describes as the misdeeds of the PML-N leadership and their rule in the past. They are trying to play up the PML-N relations with the Taliban and the Punjab-based religious-sectarian groups. It has also revived the issue how the PML-N government (1997-1999) conspired through Saifur Rehman and the then Justice Abdul Qayyum of the Lahore High Court to convict Benazir Bhutto in a case in the court of that judge.
When examining election campaigning by individual candidates in electoral constituencies, the political discourse is completely different from what the party leaders talk about in their public rallies. The constituency campaign is more down-to-earth and deals with the day-to-day problems and affairs of the residents of the constituencies. The issues that get highlighted at this level include, among other things, supply of drinking water and gas to households, sewerage, waste disposal and cleanliness of streets, improvements of roads and streets, hospital in the locality or availability of medical facilities in the already existing hospitals, schools in the constituency, traffic problems, law and order, and illegal constructions on roadside etc.
The candidates make promises to address these problems. Liaquat Baloch, a Jamaat-i-Islami candidate from Lahore promised to end gas and electricity load-sheding and reduce prices of the commodities commonly needed by people. One candidate in Hafizabad who worked as “marriage-registrar” for the area, promised not to charge fee for the registration of marriage of poor people. In Kamalia, Punjab, a candidate arranged quiz competition in local schools and gave gifts to the children giving correct answers. He also distributed candies and chocolates among junior school children. His argument was that if he won the goodwill of children they would ask their parents to vote for him and that a good number of parents respected the wish of their children.
The candidates of Islamic political parties made promises on the constituency related issues and talked of introducing a “truly” Islamic order, enforce Sharia and introduce the welfare system of the earliest period of Islam.
The political parties paid attention to winning over religious hierarchy like sajjadanasheen, pirs and religious leaders of standing. Imran Khan is using a strong religious discourse. Some candidates started their election with a visit to some sufi shrine. The sisters of Imran Khan prayed at the shrine of Bibi Pak-daman (Lahore) for Imran’s electoral victory. A Christian candidate started his election campaign in the Lahore area with a church service.
The Ahmadiya community has boycotted the current election. They boycotted the earlier two elections also. They see no justification for making a separate voters’ list for their community in a joint electorate system.
The keepers of two major shrines are contesting the elections. They are Shah Mahmuud Qureshi and Makhdoom Amin Fahim. The Pir of Pagaro is heading a faction of the Muslim League but he is not contesting the elections.
There are 60 reserved seats for women in the National Assembly and 128 women reserved seats in four provincial assemblies. Women can contest on general seats as well. Over thirty women are contesting for National Assembly elections. The number of women contestants in four provincial assemblies is higher. Only a small number of women candidates are expected to win. One women candidate for a National Assembly seat used a motorcycle for travelling for campaign. A Hindu women contesting on a general National Assembly seat in Sindh came from a very humble background and has worked as a labourer. Similarly, there are reserved seats for non-Muslims in the National and Provincial Assemblies but a couple of non-Muslim are candidates on a general seat.
The allocation of party ticket to the candidates caused much problem for all political parties. A good number of those who did not get the party-ticket decided to contest the election as an independent or joined another political party. This weakened the original party, accentuating internal conflict in it. All the major political parties faced this problem.
The high flying rhetoric of the party leaders is in sharp contrast to what is important at the constituency level. The leaders get away with their wild promises because the ordinary people want to live in dreams. Nobody asks the political leaders as to what happened to their earlier promises. However, the voting behaviour is not determined exclusively by these promises.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.