Did the party fail the democratic process?
After becoming the second strongest party in Pakistan after the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) after the 2013 general elections, many believe that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had an opportunity that it persistently kicked in the teeth — an opportunity to strengthen the democratic process and rid it of the issues that plague it.
The first phase of the LB polls in Punjab paints a harrowing picture of defeat for the party. The near clean sweep demonstrated that at the grass root level, PTI has no leg to stand on.
The party has been routinely criticised of having tunnel vision. The continued emphasis on rigging seems like a tired, worn out affair — one that even PTI supporters now grew weary of hearing.
Close to two and a half year later, while many synchronise in accusing the party of losing the many opportunities that came its way, some still feel that it is the one true party that could make a difference for democracy.
Salman Zaidi is an analyst and leads Jinnah Institute’s Strategic Security Initiative. He feels that perhaps it’s a bit too early to sell PTI short.
“I think PTI’s politics is still evolving in Punjab, and I think they overestimated their ability impact change on the ground. Punjab is and will remain — for a long time to come — a hotbed for a contest between the two largest parties ie the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
“While these two older parties have lost out in non-traditional areas, where PTI has been more active, they will continue to give very stiff contest to any new entrants into this space ie street power, which is evidenced by significant patronage networks, and have a history,” he said.
“And PTI has not managed to make inroads,” he added.
Zaidi was of the view that PTI’s experience in the local bodies elections has been very sobering. This is true; the party, while it performs fairly differently at the federal and provincial level, it has a long way to go before it understands how to function in the grass roots of Sindh and Punjab. One evidence of this is PTI leader Imran Ismail’s bid for the NA-246 seat.
The party has been routinely criticised of having tunnel vision. The continued emphasis on rigging seems like a tired, worn out affair — one that even PTI supporters now grew weary of hearing
The fierce competition between Ismail and Mutahidda Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) candidate Kanwar Naveed Jameel didn’t last long. The bubble burst as soon as it was realised that PTI was thoroughly disconnected from the very people it was hoping would hand over their votes. Their lack of a presence at the grass root level was alarming because they had been facing MQM, a party that has built itself up from the ground by latching onto the grass roots.
“I see PTI’s whole project as helping mainstream, significant policy issues at the national level. They are still yet to be tested as a force at the provincial level outside KP. Their policy inputs and postures in Punjab and Sindh have been tentative at best, and not remarkable. They have been an opposition for the sake of an opposition in Sindh and Punjab. I don’t necessarily see them as obstacles to the bigger democratic project in the country but I do see them as not being able to articulate enough policy inputs or even create the kind of democratic change that they would like to see overall in Pakistan,” Zaidi noted.
However, PTI’s value cannot be overwritten. Zaidi feels that the current electoral process has only helped outline what PTI has done that’s good and if it works at strengthening itself at the most devolved point, it can rise above all.
“There are success stories from KP that serve as indicators of PTI’s democratic success. These indicators include progressive policies. However, politics does dictate that PTI will utilise the same mechanisms of patronage politics that have been used by other governments in the past,” Zaidi observed.
Former National Assembly Speaker, and senior leader of PML-N, Ayaz Sadiq feels that PTI has wasted far too much time on not just street politics, but also baseless accusations.
“They made the 2013 elections controversial and the judicial commission decided against them. Then they did the same in NA-122, and the same thing happened again. The public itself has passed a verdict against them now after the local body polls,” Sadiq said.
He pointed out that the local body result was more or less the same as the 2013 election result, which showed a consistency of sorts.
“They are wasting the nation’s time, and not just time, they delayed the CPEC by six months and caused losses worth billions. People’s incomes were affected, businesses were affected, even the national exchequer was affected,” Sadiq said.
“There are multiple issues with them, and they caused multiple problems for the country,” he added.
The PML-N leader also spoke about PTI’s rigid and flawed stance.
“Unfortunately their stance is to not accept defeat, and it is nothing but double standards. When their people get a stay order from the SC they say it’s okay but criticise others when they do the same,” he pointed out.
PTI has often touted that it has the power of the youth behind it. But the former NA speaker feels that that is nothing to boast about.
“They started using terrible language in politics, what is the youth learning from them? They are losing ground because they are doing politics for their own selfish interests,” he said.
Sadiq was of the view that the people of the country need to band together and work for it. However, right now people were only banding together to make fun of the PTI, which seems to have lost the plot.
Democracy, too, took a hit because of the party, according to Sadiq.
“They were no help to democracy; they tried to derail it entirely. Other democratic parties joined their forces and they said that they wanted to unite. I was sitting in the parliament when they attacked it, and we refused to leave it at that point. We weren’t going to yield to their tactics,” he recalled.
“They have tried to physically derail democracy; they have even tried to morally decay it,” he said and added: “They’re teaching people chaos… how to break through violently. It will be the jungle’s law and we will not let them do it.”
On the other hand, PTI senior leader Ejaz Chaudhry completely disagrees with Sadiq’s viewpoint. While listing the many ways in which the current polls were rigged, he said that criticising the party for raising its voice against an injustice was absurd.
“If there is a robbery or an accident, will you first deal with that or will you move on? The rigging issue is the same for us,” he asserted.
The PTI’s performance in the recent local body polls does not worry Chaudhry as he feels that a real devolution o power has not, and will not be happening anytime soon.
“At least give the people you have elected powers. The Act that has been passed for local bodies does not give anyone any powers. The elected officials will be governed by other authorities. Financial authority, health authority, education authority, etc, will all be the ones with the real power,” he said.
“They cannot spend a penny on their own or even sanction it for something. Whether someone accepts it or not they were elected and they are now in that position — but where are their powers?” he asked.
The PTI leader then talked about the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — where the party did manage to get good results in local body elections — and said that there is a devolution plan in place. The election winners in KP will have real power.
“And this won’t be just for the elected folk from the PTI. It will go to nazims and chairmen from other parties as well. But with that we will also continue to talk about the injustice of rigging!” he asserted.
Chaudhry further went to bash the people that criticised the party for being too embroiled in street politics.
“Where in the definition of democracy does it say that street politics is not allowed? This is a right that we have as citizens of a democratic country. I have the right to give speeches, I have the right to organise!” he said.
The PTI leader said that the kind of political awareness and education that PTI has brought with it in just two and a half years was nothing short of a miracle.
Senior policy analyst Irfan Shahzad agrees.
The PTI under Imran Khan has always stood out for the speed at which it has managed to captivate people and build a following. However, what it is surprisingly still lacking is an approach that gets to the people
“They did play a role in strengthening democracy. Granted that they have made some mistakes… it is not okay to target institutions by use of popular force. However, in more ways than one they have been the force that has been trying to revamp the system,” he explained.
The problem, Shahzad points out, is not with a particular party but with Pakistan’s perpetual infancy in terms of the democratic system it so craves. True democracy will take time to come into Pakistani politics.
“The true spirit of democracy will take a while to reach us, but the political process is evolving and PTI has its role,” Shahzad asserted.
The issue then is that PTI, while it has some influence at the national and provincial level, has no idea what to do about the grass root.
“It would be wrong to say that their vote bank has been substantially affected. The local body election results do not necessarily reflect the popularity of PTI because local level politics has its own flavour, and PTI is yet to learn that,” Shahzad said.
However, he pointed out that the debate over whether PTI has been good or bad for the local body elections is one that isn’t as important as the ground realities.
“In a Pakistani context, I would say that having a local body election is not the best idea. It is the last tier of government, however, this also means that the arrogance and corruption that comes hand in hand with an MNA or MPA will also be devolved to the grass root level,” he said.
“In a society where the democratic spirit and process itself has not yet caught root, something like this could be very dangerous,” he warned.
The PTI under Imran Khan has always stood out for the speed at which it has managed to captivate people and build a following. However, what it is surprisingly still lacking is an approach that gets to the people.
Shahzad rightfully says, “PTI needs to represent itself as a strong, thoughtful and well measured alternative to the existing parties. I feel that PTI is not presenting itself as a real alternative.”
Learning from Imran Ismail’s experience and the example in Karachi is the need of the hour for the party, which has somehow managed to wedge into the political fabric at the federal and provincial level.