Real politics

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 7:30:10 by


Over the last few weeks, my students at Forman Christian College have been very excited about political happenings in Pakistan. So, last week, I asked them who they were going to vote for in the next general elections. Unsurprisingly, a large number of students said that they were supporting Imran Khan. However, all of them were unable to name a single leader in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) except Imran, even though a number of them had attended the Lahore rally and were obviously present when several other PTI leaders spoke. It was as if these young and educated people were oblivious to anyone else’s presence except Imran’s. Reminding them that Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy where one votes for a candidate in a particular constituency and not for a prime ministerial or presidential candidate, I gave them a supposed scenario: I asked them to imagine that in their local constituency there was a PTI candidate called ‘Aslam’. Now they have never met or seen Aslam and know nothing about him, except that he is a PTI candidate. How many of them, I asked, would vote for Aslam just because he was a PTI candidate? Predictably, over half of the PTI supporters said they would still vote for Aslam. Then I told them that the person they had just voted for was a donkey.

The point is not to single out Imran Khan and the PTI, supporters of the PML-N, the PPP and other parties would also vote similarly. The issue here is that this behaviour differentiates us from successful democracies. In Pakistan, we have cult-based politics even though we are in a constituency-based political system. We vote in the name of Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and now Imran Khan, not on the basis of Mr X or Ms Y, who are good local candidates. When asked, only a few people in the nearly 40-strong class could name their local member of either the national or provincial assemblies. Here lies the crux of the problem. In Britain, whose parliamentary system we have adopted, politics is largely constituency based. Candidates win not just because they belong to the Conservative or Labour party, they win primarily because they have been good local MP’s — they are the first point of call when people have a local problem and their re-election campaign depends heavily on their constituency-based performance. Let me give an example. In the last general election in the UK, in Oxford West and Abingdon (my constituency), the long-standing Liberal Democrat politician Evan Harris was running against a political novice, the Conservative party candidate, Nicola Blackwood, who was a graduate student in music. Harris had been re-elected three times with large majorities, was a Liberal Democrat frontbencher and such a good speaker that his unseating by the Conservatives was almost unthinkable. While working with Ms Blackwood on her campaign, all of us thought that we should hope to lower his margin of victory, so that at the next election perhaps the Conservatives could try to unseat him. However, the early hours of election night in May 2010 left all of us flabbergasted. Not only was Blackwood able to bridge the gap, she actually won by 176 votes. Among the several reasons why Blackwood won, one of the most important ones was that she focused on the constituency and argued that she would be a better representative of the concerns of Oxford West & Abingdon than the national, star politician Dr Harris. Her ‘constituency focus’ was a prime reason for her win.

In Pakistan, of course, no such constituency politics exists and this is one of the crucial reasons for the abysmal state of our politics. We only want to elect and even care for national politicians who are expected to fix the country with a magic wand. Old options or new faces, Pakistan is not going to become a real democracy, or even develop, if we do not care about who we are electing at our local level.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2011.

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