Why the PTI’s anti-inflation rally is bad politics

Published: January 5, 2014
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The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US

The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US

It may not look like it now, but the ‘anti-inflation’ rally held by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Lahore last month may backfire on its prospects for re-election in 2018. The PTI has forgotten one of the cardinal rules of Pakistani politics: voters judge incumbents by very different standards than insurgent campaigners. In the minds of the public, the PTI has transitioned from the latter to the former, but it has not adjusted its behaviour accordingly.

The thinking behind the Lahore rally is easy to understand. To win a national election, any political party must be competitive in Punjab. The PTI has formed an administration in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), but wants to remain politically engaged with its supporters in Punjab. That seems logical enough. The method chosen, however, may hurt more than it helps.

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To understand what the PTI has done wrong, it is first necessary to understand the fundamental flaw in the party’s character. It is a political party that neither understands nor accepts as legitimate the purpose of politics. In doing so, it risks alienating the Pakistani voter. The voter’s view of both government and politics is very different from that of the PTI. Government is the vehicle that society uses to distribute resources and services to all citizens. Politics is the negotiation process by which society decides who gets what. There is, by definition, some horse-trading and deal-making involved, and while such activity can be both good and bad, the PTI’s view of politics is that it is uniformly bad.

Therein lies the problem. Because the voter’s primary ideology is not anti-corruption or nationalism or liberalism or conservatism. It is pragmatism. Which party will be able to get me what I value the most? And how the voter judges this is by past performance. The PTI has been given a chance by voters in K-P to build a track record in that province. The next time around, the average national voter will judge the party on the strength of that record.

From now on, election-style rallies that seek to mobilise vague, ill-defined voter anger against the incumbents in Punjab will not matter. The voters will not ask: “Can you get me out of the mess I am in because of the current administration?” They will ask: “What have you done for the people you governed last time? And what can you do for me here that is better than what I already have with the PML-N?” If the party fails at having a good answer to that latter set of questions, it will fail miserably in the next election.

The best way to engage the voter in Punjab, then, is to implement good policies in K-P and then have the party’s MPAs in the Punjab Assembly push for their adoption in Punjab. This strategy is somewhat difficult, of course. The PML-N is very quick to co-opt many of the PTI’s good ideas as its own in Punjab and has been successful in retaining the loyalty of Punjab’s voters. So, the PTI must go after a policy issue that the PML-N leadership will not accept and will refuse to take ownership of: truly empowering elected local governments in Punjab.

The PML-N leadership is radically opposed to decentralising power and will refuse to budge to the PTI demands to grant local governments more authority. That is the time that the PTI should hold large rallies in cities all across Punjab, touting the benefits of its admittedly detailed local government policy agenda, and seek to pressure the PML-N to adopt its policy. If the PML-N caves, that is a victory that the PTI can then take to the bank for the 2018 elections. If the PML-N refuses to budge, that is a stick the PTI will be able to beat the PML-N with in the next election. Either way, the party will score a political victory.

A rally against inflation is clearly a Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) idea, which at least, had the originality to do it in 2008, when inflation was higher than any time in Pakistani history. By copying that strategy, the PTI risks putting itself in the same box as the JI: plenty of street power, but nothing in the ballot box. Feel-good nationalistic and populist slogans do not win elections. Performance does. The sooner the PTI realises this and changes its political strategy, the better for both itself and the voters of Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Jan 6, 2014 - 12:29AM

    Excellent suggestions but would PTI follow? I doubt it. Arrogance prevails in PTI from top to bottom. Beside performance of KP government, one more point which Imran lacks and that is prompt and decisive reaction to national issues. I can cite two examples from previous week. Imran did not say a word about Musharaf issue and secondly when just in couple of days whole Sindh divides and falls into laps of Bilawal and Altaf, Imran stood silent and did not utter a single word. Imran should understand that he is not a spectator, he has an important role and people expect his entry into crucial scenes.

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  • Muslim Leaguer
    Jan 6, 2014 - 12:30AM

    PTI’s so-called anti-inflation rally failed because it had no valid standing. After the failure of dharnas (sit-in) against NATO Supplies (and continuity of Drone attacks killing TTP Commanders), Imran Khan tried to divert the attention of the public by calling another rally.
    PTI had most conveniently ignored the fact that it is ruling in KPK and, according to State Bank of Pakistan Inflation Monitor, Peshawar is rated among “High Inflation Cities” as against Lahore, Multan and even Karachi rated among “Low Inflation Cities”.
    Therefore, anti-inflation rally in Lahore was misplaced whereas it should have been in Peshawar. But wait! Who is the ruler of Peshawar??
    Perhaps Imran Khan & his PTI has failed (on many “within 90 days” promises) and wants to become a political martyr (siyaasi shaheed).

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  • PakArmySoldier
    Jan 6, 2014 - 1:19AM

    This entire op-ed is based on the flawed logic that populism doesn’t win elections in Pakistan. The author does nothing to substantiate that view.

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  • @AbdullahButt7
    Jan 6, 2014 - 3:30AM

    Well said.

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  • Tajjee
    Jan 6, 2014 - 9:41AM

    “Feel-good nationalistic and populist slogans do not win elections. Performance does”

    If this was the case then Musharaf’swould have ben re elected in 2008 and 2013 as in terms of performance none can compet his tenure.

    Second, I dont know how articles this guy wrote when PMLN was in center and provincial government yet was staging protests against inflation and corruption which eventually led them to RULE in 2013.

    These suggestions are applicable if Pak were US.

    By now, these are some wishlisht whatever PTI did is good to show concern for problems for common man.

    SO, pleae instead of wasting time on ‘Wrthless’ Protest, better have look on what PTI is doing in KPK and has done in last month which PMLN couldnt do in 6 terms of its RULE.

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  • Parvez
    Jan 6, 2014 - 1:24PM

    What you say makes abundant sense, but for you to construe that the PTI thinkers are not cognisant of these difficulties is a little naive.

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  • AR
    Jan 6, 2014 - 8:49PM

    The average Pakistani’s vote doesn’t depend on a party’s performance in (and out of) government, but on their views/allegiance of/to higher-than-life leaders of political parties: Sharifs (PML-N), the Bhutto brand (PPP), Altaf Hussain (MQM), Khan Wali Khan brand (ANP), Imran Khan (PTI) and so on and so forth. Its always been like this over here.Recommend

  • Z lodhi
    Jan 6, 2014 - 9:34PM

    I do not understand what is the objective or even relevance, it is all based on perosnal view and forecast of the writer. A comparetive analysis of the provincial governments can and will be done close to the elections, in the meantime what ever the Federal government does can be protested against and protesting is ones right in a democracy, specially when the national assembly/cabinet’s performance is abysmalRecommend

  • pragmatic
    Jan 7, 2014 - 5:07AM

    This is as far as I read, basically: “Therein lies the problem. Because the voter’s primary ideology is not anti-corruption or nationalism or liberalism or conservatism. It is pragmatism. Which party will be able to get me what I value the most? And how the voter judges this is by past performance.”

    In Pakistan, the voter is typically an illiterate citizen that lacks the ability to independently assess the pros and cons of each party. Hence, past performance is no measure or predictor of future political establishments in Pakistan, dynasties are.

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  • Raja Islam
    Jan 7, 2014 - 9:15PM

    Some level of inflation is actually good for the economy. Hyperinflation is bad.

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