Couple of things worth saying about Cyril Almeida's piece on Imran Khan but, before I begin, let me just recap the situation for the 5 major parties that have a say in how future elections would pan out in the province.
(In this piece South Punjab starts at Khanewal in the east, and south of Bhakkar in the west)
a) The PML-N, due to a host of factors (complacency being near the top), has largely remained confined in its backyard i.e. a regular playing field of 100 odd seats in North and Central Punjab. It has probably lost whatever little ground it had in the South because of the Seraiki province issue. As things stand, out of 100 general seats in North and Central Punjab, the PML-N has 54. It has a further 8 seats in South Punjab.
b) It's hard to say what the PPP has done during the last 3 and a half years in terms of holding voters in Punjab. The op-ed sentiment is that this governance rot could certainly swing people away from the PPP to other parties, which could potentially see them losing their rural and peri-urban seats in the North and Center. On the other hand, they'll most probably be hanging on to the south because of the Seraiki province issue. In 2008, the PPP won 21 out of 48 seats in South Punjab, and 26 seats in North and Central Punjab.
c) The PML-Q has suffered two major splits, one largely at the senatorial level, in the shape of the Like Minded Group, and the other one at the provincial assembly level, with a forward bloc crossing of around 40 MPAs led by Atta Manekah and Dr. Tahir Javed. At the 2008 NA level, the PML-Q won 17 seats in North and Central Punjab, and 10 seats in the South.
d) PTI, the subject of Almeida's piece, has contested two by-elections (NA-54, and NA-123), and one provincial assembly seat (PP-160) between 2008 and now. While bye-elections are a fairly poor measure of electoral prospects, the PTI gained 3 second place finishes (Ijaz Khan Jazi in Pindi, Hamid Meraj Din and Malik Zaheer Abbas Khokar in Lahore), albeit with considerable distances. The fact that the PPP didn't field candidates in these constituencies also counted in their favor. That said, the PTI has been putting in some strong showings, and not just on facebook. A solid rally in Faisalabad, and a few others, especially the recent one in Gujranwala, show that it can bring out large numbers on anti-government and anti-America issues. This in itself is not indicative of electoral success, but is, nevertheless, a sign of increasing popularity.
e) As much as we like to analyze it, the Jamaat has never been an electoral force in Punjab, and has only ever won seats after securing arrangements with other parties. Hafiz Salman Butt, once their poster boy, was thrashed at the hands of Pervaiz Malik in the NA-123 Lahore by-election, and if some reports are to be believed, Jahangir Bara wanted to trade in his JI ticket for a PTI ticket before the PP-160 by-election. Without being too presumptuous, it is safe to say the JI is a lot less relevant now than it was, say, 7-8 years ago.
Okay, with that out of the way, the important thing to see is whether the PML-N should get uncomfortable at PTI's dharna + rally showings, and whether these numbers can be converted into the 30 odd seats everyone seems to be talking about.
'You don’t lose an election to poor performance, you lose an election to another candidate'
As mentioned in the article, the primary goal should be to see whether the PTI can a) find enough candidates, or b) steal potential winners from other parties. So far, their big name signing has been Mian Azhar, who I'm afraid is probably the most irrelevant politician in Punjab. He's a former governor of the province, but you might remember him as the guy who formed the King's party, but couldn't win a fixed election in 2002. However, as Takhalus said on twitter, floodgates open after perceptions start changing. Basically if I'm a PML-N man, Rana XYZ in Gujranwala, and I see PTI flags and dharnas everywhere, i could very well think that maybe now's the time to jump ship. Combine that with rumors and whispers about 'angelic' support, and a lot of candidates could switch from the PML-N, Q or the PPP to the PTI purely on the basis of perceived chances of this new party.
All well and good; Except electoral politics, and Punjabi politics in general, functions according to micro-foundational mechanisms that ultimately make Rana XYZ a winning candidate.
Everyone will agree that the overarching principle for an electoral victory in 21st century Pakistan is patronage. But the logical follow up to this repeated assertion is where does this elusive patronage come from?
Well for starters, a candidate is backed by what is called the belly of Punjab. We see Rana XYZ of Gujranwala, but we don't see his backers, Chaudhary ABC, and Shaikh GHI. Chaudhary sb. is a local construction magnate, with diversified interests falling anywhere between rented shops to rural real estate. Shaikh sb., on the other hand, is the head of Saddar bazaar traders association, and controls a multi-million rupee business built on agro-trading, pesticides, and machinery. Together, they've decided that they run their businesses, which will finance Rana sb.'s elections. Come election time, they'll make sure their biraderis are in line, their minions running around distributing favors and bottles of cold pepsi/cups of hot tea (depending on the season), and Rana Sb. is reminded of what needs to be done after a victory is secured. So after Rana sb. secures his seat in the NA (or PA), he gets around to re-paying Chaudhary sb. and Shaikh sb. For Chaudhary sb. he allocates a portion of his Peoples Work Program money in the form of a new 2 lane road and a few school buildings. For Shaikh sb., he manages to get a few licenses for pesticide and seed imports, a direct line with the fertilizer plants, and a license to purchase tractors off the assembly line. Rana sb. is backed because he has a proven track record with the local bureaucrats, with the political party, and with all those who matter. Similarly, Rana sb. works with Chaudhary sb. and Shaikh sb. because, well, he needs the money and the votes. Everyone's happy, except the disconnected underbelly (i.e. the 'plebs'), but who cares about that.
So when you start looking at these micro-foundational mechanisms for every constituency, you will find different patterns and subsequently, different chances for success or failure. The problem with existing analysis of PTI's chances is that we're assuming either a straight up ship-jump of winning or close candidates (kind of like the PML-N to PML-Q jump of 2002), or Imran Khan's ability to make winners out of, what are essentially, losers (like Mian Azhar). The former is much more difficult without the coercive apparatus of a dictator or a strong winning perception of the PTI, while the latter is too reliant on Imran's charisma, the new disconnected urban/peri-urban middle class, and the ability of his party folks to actually run an election at the constituency level.
Another problem is that we often overlook the importance of provincial assembly candidates in determining the fate of national assembly seats. While complacency has stuck with the PML-N for much of its time in power, they did manage to wean away 40 odd MPAs from the PML-Q, i.e. 40 winners in places where their hastily assembled candidate couldnt do anything. Now winning an MPA election is less expensive but not much less difficult than an MNA election. It's a complete process, whereby the party machinery works in such a way that MNAs back their party's MPA candidates, while the (usually) two MPA candidates back their man for the NA seat. Their patronage networks are also interlinked, with the same Chaudhary sb.s and Shaikh sb.s working behind the scenes to ensure victory for their chosen horses. Does the PTI have that kind of reach at all levels of politics? The PML-N was literally bred during the 80's, and even then it took them the best part of 3 decades to finally have a functioning political machine. Leaving aside the fact that the machine was overhauled in 2002, it just shows that patronage networks aren't won or made that easily, nor are they susceptible to mood-swings.
So what's the lesson here? Predicting electoral victories for any party at this point in time is slightly presumptuous and perhaps too reliant on national moods, and less on constituency level facts. The last time I wrote a piece on Imran Khan, i secretly promised myself that I won't make any predictions about his chances till I study the metropolitan and city pages of the Urdu press for at least 8-10 months. You see, the thing is that between all those press releases and yellow journalism stories, you will often find a couple of nuggets from different areas on how the head of some traders association in some market held a strike in solidarity with one political party or the other. You will also see little tid-bits on how some local magnate is meeting the district president of some party. When we start seeing PTI feature heavily in these little, on-the-face-of-it irrelevant pieces of district level reporting, we'll have a better idea of whether the tide is turning, and whether Imran Khan has the support of the Belly of Punjab.
*The term politics of the belly is the title of one of my all time favorite books by the very awesome Jean Francois Bayart. Anyone interested in African politics or patronage systems in general should give it a read.