Time for rival parties to embrace the change

Time for rival parties to embrace the change


What would it take for two parties with a bitter past to align with each other? The answer may very well lie with ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. 

In an offer that questions the very nature of politics, parties and their leadership, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) leader suggested that the party forges an electoral-alliance with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to contest the by-elections, raising prospects of a possible full-scale alliance in all future elections. 

This goes to show that while common interests bring political parties and factions together, conflicting ones can pull them apart. Politics, after all, is all about the pursuit of power and the formation of alliances to address important issues, often achieved through electoral contests or by forming coalition governments, something which is quite common in a democratic setup. 

Therefore, if the PML-N and the PPP were to merge, it would not be the least bit surprising. What is important to note, however, is to what extent the two parties are willing to go to make this possible and what they are looking to gain individually from the alliance.

History is testament to the fact that the PML-N and the PPP have been at loggerheads, subjecting each other to several instances of conflict, bitterness, humiliation and betrayal. While alternating in power for about three decades, after the second chapter of democracy in 1988, the two parties treated each other more as tribal adversaries than legitimate, democratic and political competitors. Their leaders too chose to be hostile to one another, often using offensive language while commenting on matters pertaining to each other’s public and private lives. 

Revenge, defamation and efforts to destabilize each other’s governments were often central to their brand of politics. In doing so, they bought loyalties of various members of assemblies, collaborated with the security establishment and reportedly used tons of illegally- acquired cash to further their means. 

What shaped their conflict was an ugly, personalized pursuit of power which they were willing to achieve by whatever means necessary. The political disorder and instability created as part of their mutually-destructive narrative resulted in delegitimizing democracy and tarnishing the image of the political class as a whole. 

It also resulted in a widespread conception that ‘politicians’ were ‘ruining’ the country, leading to conditions which made it imperative for the military to step in and rule for almost a decade from 1999 to 2008.

When all things are equal, pragmatism defines the path for parties, shaping them as rational political actors.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

In exile or out of power -- and with their parties fragmented to create a supportive political façade -- party leaders Benazir Bhutto and Sharif finally signed the Charter of Democracy, with an intention to establish new rules for the political game. These dictated that they would work towards restoring democracy, function within the constitutional limits, and together consolidate democracy against the praetorian tendencies of Pakistani politics. It was a move intended to send a message Pervaiz Musharraf, that the two parties were together and that they had the capacity to mobilize people against his military rule.

The two saw through the promise till after the 2008 elections by forming a coalition government in Punjab and at the federal level, developing an understanding to do everything in their capacity to force Musharraf out as president. But the dream was short-lived and soon they were back to engaging in confrontational politics, locking horns over the issue of restoring the judiciary.

Perhaps there is now a realization among the current leaders that their style of politics and the pervasive narrative of their “failure” created a vacuum that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), ended up filling. The emergence of the PTI in the past two decades centered around the corruption of the PMLN and the PPP, specifically their poor governance, stagnant policies and dynasty politics. Khan’s credibility and his idea of “change” to bring about much-needed reforms have greatly shrunk the political space for the PML-N in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Overtime, the PPP too has shrunk from a truly national party to one catering to interior Sindh. This is why it is understandable that for the two to be political rivals doesn’t make rational sense -- working against each other would only allow the PTI to take up more space.

Therefore, it will be in the political interests of both the PML-N and the PPP to liberate themselves from the shackles of their past and embrace the change. There is now, in the form of the PTI, a more formidable political force that is working toward achieving just that, further dimming the chances for the two parties to rise again and acquire power individually.

When all things are equal, pragmatism defines the path for parties, shaping them as rational political actors. Therefore, cooperating or seeking an alliance with other parties is always in self-interest. The PPP and the PML-N will do better if they understand this political logic — when the weaker parties pull their resources, energies and strengths together, they achieve better electoral outcomes.

• Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore.  His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais

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