The myth and role of the ‘electable’

Published: May 12, 2017
The writer works with Pattan Development Organisation. He can be reached at

The writer works with Pattan Development Organisation. He can be reached at

Almost everywhere one turns there are visible signs of campaigning for the 2018 general election. Even before the Supreme Court decision on the Panama leaks case, leaders of the ruling party and their major rivals had revved up their political engines, announcing mega projects and luring ‘electable’ candidates to their side.

Every election reminds me of the campaign and the conduct of the 1970 general election as it still is the benchmark on so many counts. For instance, instead of promising projects and finding winnable candidates, the public was attracted through ideology. Structural changes, end of monopoly of feudal and capitalist lords were what the progressive parties offered, while the right-wing parties focused on ‘Islam is in danger’.

The 1970 election till date is highly valued as the only free and fair election. However, it should also be remembered for the humiliating defeat of religious parties, powerful feudal lords and big industrialists. Some 90 per cent of those who won were not considered ‘electable’ at all, neither were their parties. Across East and West Pakistan the people voted for socialist and secular parties and leaders.

In the 1970 election peoples’ will reflected truly in the electoral outcome because the military regime at the time, despite its strong bias for religious parties, provided a level playing field. Though they regretted it later and shamelessly tried to manipulate the results. The military establishment also learnt a few lessons post-elections and never forgot them, as they never provided a level playing field again and instead nurtured subservient candidates and planted them in ‘popular’ parties and constructed the myth of the electable. Consider the creation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in 1988.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also learnt some unwise lessons and one-by-one got rid of popular leaders of his own party and replaced them with those who had been defeated by the PPP only a couple of years back. He also sacked the coalition governments of the National Awami Party and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in K-P and Balochistan. In short, Bhutto reached to the same conclusion in 1973 where the military establishment was already at — eliminate those who don’t agree and replace them by power-hungry corrupt cronies. But perhaps Bhutto couldn’t understand its implications.

Like water follows gravity, corrupt politicians trail power. When Bhutto was overthrown in July 1977, one-by-one these corrupt allies jumped to Ziaul Haq’s bandwagon, discreetly in the beginning and openly later. Politics abhors suspicion as much as vacuum. Bhutto killed people’s passionate love for him by rehabilitating those notorious feudals and capitalists whom they had rejected. This helped Zia to hang Bhutto.

The day Bhutto was being hanged, the atmosphere at Quaid-e-Azam University, where I was studying at the time, was extremely tense and gloomy. Some of us planned to attend Bhutto’s ghaibana namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayers in absentia) taking place at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi — the same place where 29 years later, his daughter Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Instead of heading straight to the place, we decided to approach the party stalwarts who had gathered at Dr Zafar Niazi’s residence. It was shocking to see PPP leaders enjoying late morning tea in the lawn. Seemingly, there was no sign of grief on their faces. That deeply disturbed us. “We have come here to take you to Liaquat Bagh where thousands of people have already reached for Bhutto’s ghaibana namaz-e-janaza,” said a student. They got scared. Most were reluctant to leave but some agreed except Dr Niazi and Aziz Ahmad.

Many of them later shamelessly served Zia, contested and ‘won’ 1985’s party-less elections and became ministers. They formed the first ‘electable’ gang. Prior to publicly joining Zia’s regime, most of them would phone the police or Martial Law authorities for their own arrest. This would satisfy both the party and the regime simultaneously, maintaining trust of the party and room to negotiate with the regime.

Dr Niazi steadfastly remained loyal to the party, suffered terribly and finally escaped to London. After Zia’s death on 17th August 1988, these traitors consolidated their ‘electability’. The military establishment under Zia also exploited their deep hatred for Bhutto and the PPP. The Muslim League was reinvigorated under Nawaz Sharif’s leadership and although he as a person is hugely different from Bhutto, his love for the so-called electable isn’t.

Like the 1985 general election when a large number of PPP’s ‘electable’ ditched the party, the 2002 general election witnessed a switch in loyalty of many PML-N’s ‘electable’. Moreover, like Benazir’s embracing traitors in 1988 onwards, Sharif did the same after coming back in 2008. The electable enjoyed power, amassed wealth during Musharraf-PML-Q rule and when they saw their downfall, they betrayed the benefactors. They have upheld this tradition in subsequent years. But skilfully remain relevant. The notion of electable is deeply prevalent but in reality it’s just a myth.

Any political leaders who think there are any electable, lives in a world of fallacy. Why do ‘electable’ keep on shifting parties and why do they always jump to a party that is perceived to be a winner? In my view, their vote banks are too small to win. They have to add additional votes and there are only two other sources that could provide them additional votes — political parties and the administration. Often ‘electable’ would join a party that is clearly the establishment’s favourite. In case the establishment doesn’t show its clear bias, then electable would prefer to join the party, which was in power prior to the election. This has been the case since 2002 but in the 1990s, electable liked to join a party that was in the opposition. In other words, if a ruling party is removed from power prematurely and mid-term elections are announced then the electable was highly likely to join the opposition party.

But it still doesn’t explain, why popular leaders embrace tested deserters time and again? It sounds reasonable to argue that such parties lack social roots and political structures in most constituencies, thus can’t win elections on their own. They need some additional votes. The ‘electable’ could fulfil this gap but only to an extent. Rest is filled through the connivance of officials. Therefore, it has often been a marriage of convenience between the ‘electable’ and leaders of political parties. But a political leader who has his own strong social base should not rely on them. They are, in fact, a liability, as they would oppose party membership drives and intra-party election. Resultantly, keep leaders hostage and when things go wrong they would be the first to run away. They not only betray their leaders but also the electorates. Voters’ vengeance has led to a declining turnout since 1970.

But nothing deters them. Each ‘electable’ amassed wealth and brought other family members to the assemblies, resulting in diminishing social roots of democracy. The lotas of yesteryear managed to become the ‘electables’ of today but the new name doesn’t change their nature.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2017.

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