Walking around Karachi, as in other Pakistani cities, one may be forgiven for thinking that along with the living, ghosts and invisible people are also contesting tomorrow’s national elections.
The incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has the dubious honour of bluntly asking Pakistanis to vote for dead people. Every PPP banner has, along with the image of an arrow, its election symbol, a slogan: “Vote your conscience, vote for Bhutto and Benazir.” Images of the father and daughter, both long dead, along with a photo of Dubai-based Bilawal, son of Benazir, adorn every PPP poster. And even Bilawal is visible in Pakistan only via a video link.
The 2013 elections were expected primarily to be a contest between former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the PPP. But the rapid rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and a weak, half-hearted, unfocused and leaderless campaign by the PPP has made this a fight between the PML-N and the PTI, particularly in most of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Taliban attacks on PPP rallies have, of course, contributed to a lack of on-the-ground campaigning by the party. But these attacks do not explain the weakness of the PPP’s campaign. Both the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) have been targeted by the Taliban and yet they have continued their electioneering, sometimes, particularly in the ANP case, at a great cost. Both parties are likely to maintain their share of seats in the National Assembly.
The problems with the PPP run deep. Ever since the murder of Benazir in 2008, the party has been leaderless. While Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, managed to take control of the party after 2008, he is no leader.
Under him, the party has become more and more alienated from the masses, while being increasingly involved in petty political manoeuvrings and unsavoury wheeling and dealings.
At the same time, the influence of a group of autocratic people like his sister Faryal Talpur or Anwar Saifullah and Manzoor Wattoo has created disillusionment among many of the party’s rank-and-file supporters.
Even in Lyari — a constituency of Karachi with a multi-ethnic working class population of over 600,000 — long considered a political fortress of the PPP, the party had to accept the candidates of its dissident group, the People’s Amn Group, over its own long-established leaders.
The shrinking popular base of the PPP has meant that the party’s presence has shifted from urban areas to its more traditional constituencies in rural Sind and southern Punjab where clan and family ties run deep. Opinion polls, however, indicate that even in some of these constituencies, the PPP is facing difficult battles against other parties.
Finally, as an incumbent, the People’s Party is answerable for its five years in power. These have not been good years for the country. The economy has crawled along while violence has galloped.
Large parts of Pakistan, including all its major cities, suffer regularly from electricity and water shortages. The list of grievances is long.
According to most surveys, a vast majority of Pakistanis, sometimes as high as 90 per cent, are dissatisfied with the direction the country is headed, and very few, 15 to 20 per cent, view Zardari favourably.
In the short term, the PML-N, PTI and, may be, the MQM might benefit from the space vacated by the PPP; the situation will vary from constituency to constituency. In the long term, if the mass base of the PPP continues to decline, the greatest gain will likely be made by Sindhi nationalist parties which, though fragmented and weak at the moment, can make significant inroads in rural Sindh.
The perceptible decline of the PPP means that it may be in danger of becoming irrelevant to Pakistani politics. But we cannot count the party out yet. Depending on the distribution of National Assembly seats between the PTI and the PML-N, the PPP might still be able to cobble together a strong coalition and remain a central player.
However, the long-term future of the party will depend on its ability to move away from the Bhutto-Zardari cult of family and reorganise itself in a way that can speak to a youthful and restless population that, as Imran Khan’s campaign has demonstrated, is hungry for change.
Bilawal is not the person who can bring this change, or at least not yet. He is too inexperienced, too alien to Pakistani masses and too much under the control of the Zardari clan. As one cloth merchant in Karachi’s busy Sadar Bazar laconically said, “They should have taught him better Urdu before making him a leader.”
Until the Pakistan People’s Party can reform and regroup, it will have no choice but to ride the ghosts of Zulfikar Ali and Benazir Bhutto to election failures.
Zulfiqar Ahmad is a
freelance writer and the president of the US-based Eqbal Ahmad Foundation