There should be no two opinions about this anymore. Even if Imran were to have won the 25 seats where he claims rigging took place, he would still have lost. Yes he managed to bring a previously apathetic section of the populace to the polling booths and yes he established a solid footing for his party in the assemblies, but naming either of these events ‘victory’ would be little more than consoling oneself with rhetoric. The hard, cold fact is that Imran lost, and the most reasonable thing at this point for Imran and his party would be to analyze their loss as stoically and rationally as possible.
So why did Imran lose? There should be no doubt about the fact that part of his loss could be attributed to the flaws in the electoral process. There’s plenty of documentary evidence to support this. But these flaws are nothing new, everyone knew about them beforehand, including the stalwarts in Imran’s party, yet little was done to systematically mitigate the damaging effects of these flaws. Any constituency politician in Pakistan knows that in this country, you don’t just ‘earn’ votes you ‘manage’ them.
The management process starts from the compilation of voters list, has to be followed through the printing and transport of ballot papers, the sealing and unsealing of ballot boxes, till the counting and submission of results from individual polling station to the presiding officers. Each vote has to be nurtured and protected like a sapling throughout this process ensuring the system that you put in place to manage this chain is foolproof as well as exploiting the loopholes in your opponent’s management system.
Traditionally, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure the sanctity of this process, but remember we are talking about a state that can’t even provide clean drinking water to most of its citizens and of late has been unable even to print passports. Relying on them to deliver a seamless electoral process is exactly the kind of naiveté that leads people to believe Imran is still not ready for politics.
To understand how PTI failed to manage their votes, consider just this one example. One of the evidences for rigging floating around on the internet include the image of a ballot results form from one of the polling booths in Lahore. It shows PTI’s candidate in lead, contrary to the official results announced later on. The image was captured by someone who claims that he made an impromptu decision to act as PTI’s polling agent when he found out that PTI had no polling agents for that particular polling station. A polling agent is a candidate representative in the polling station and he has to sign off on the final results from the polling booth as well as on the cleanness of the ballot box in the morning, before it is sealed.
PTI had more than 24,000 tabdeeli razakar (change volunteer) in Karachi alone, yet there were several polling booths where PTI failed to place a single polling agent. When I asked some PTI change volunteers about this, a lot of them didn’t seem to be aware of the role and its responsibilities and importance in the electoral process.
A modern party like PTI could have been expected to do this systematically, selecting and training an elite corps of polling agents equipped with the latest and greatest of gadgetry (actually any cellphone with camera would have been enough) to watch over the process and record documentary evidence of any misgivings. They were certainly not short of man-power. Yet they failed to even nominate polling agents on a number of polling booths; their candidates not even realizing the fact that in Pakistan elections are won polling booth by polling booth.
But even if Imran had understood the rules of the game and played by them, there’s very strong evidence now to suggest that Imran would have still lost. Maybe at most twenty more seats in the National Assembly he’d have gotten, but that would still have had him trailing behind PML-N. This is a very pressing question. Before the elections most of the pundits agreed that if Imran managed to mobilize his voters and the turnout went as high as 60%, Imran would win by a landslide. As it turns out, the turnout was 60% and a new breed of voter did show up at the polling booths in drones, yet Imran lost. There can be only one conclusion to be drawn from this; a significant percentage of the new voter was also PML-N voter (in addition to their traditional vote bank). This argument is further supported by the fact that more than fifty percent of the new registered voters in the current electoral roles was rural. The villages of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan didn’t turn up to vote for Imran, that much is quite evident. The vote bank for Imran was still limited mostly to urban areas.
One of Imran’s rallying cries during his campaign was ‘saadi vaari aan dey’ – it’s our turn now. This is a peculiar slogan for someone who claims to be fighting for an ideology. There are no turns in the political cycle; it’s not a sport, as some of Imran’s opponents also were keen to point out. What then did he mean by ‘our turn’? Whose turn was he talking about and why did the slogan catch on so much. Well it turns out; it was the urban middle class who felt that the slogan was especially relevant. When they said, ‘it’s our turn now’, they meant it. In order to understand why they felt this was a legitimate rallying cry for them we need to look at some key characteristics of this. So who are these people who constitute Imran’s vote bank?
• They are mostly salaried professionals or small businessmen.
• They are the primary tax paying class in Pakistan. Neither the very poor nor the very rich pay much in terms of taxes.
• They have a bourgeois sense of morality and hence adhere to the law of the land much more than the ultra-rich or the poorer folks. In many ways, laws are only meant for and applied on this class.
• They are formally educated.
• They are largely settled around the urban centers of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.
• In terms of wealth distribution, they are not really the middle-class (the fifty percent of the people between 25th and 75th percentile on the wealth distribution spectrum). In fact, this class constitutes no more than 15% of Pakistan’s population, probably lying somewhere between 80 to 95th percentile on the wealth distribution spectrum.
• They do not participate in politics; have little to no say in the affairs of the government and have very little stake in the state of Pakistan. The government has been, for the most part for them, a nuisance; a necessary evil that they have to content with until they manage to get immigration abroad.
The last two facts are crucial here. Imran’s voters are not the majority of the population and they have never had a representation in the political power structure (with the exception of MQM sending a few of them to assemblies). So when they say, it is our turn now, they literally mean it. They are asking for their share of the say in the affairs of the state.
It is important to qualify here that the economic class defined here is not absolute. Not everyone between the 80 to 95 percentiles votes for Imran. Similarly Imran has many followers among the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. As a decent generalization though it can be stated with reasonable confidence that the Pakistani ‘middle-class’ as described above voted for Imran in a majority, the people above and below them on the economic ladder, not so much.
Now here’s the key question that Imran needs to ask himself. Among the 80% poorest of Pakistanis that voted, why did Imran’s message not find an appeal? The rural poor did not vote overwhelmingly for Imran, rather they chose to vote for the richest man in Pakistan. Why? Why do the poor of this country continue to vote for the rich, giving up the only power that the democratic system affords them; the power to have representation in the political structure.
To answer this question, we need to look at other countries where the poor continue to vote for the rich. A classic example of this phenomenon is the Tea Party movement in America. The Tea Party movement has led its mostly lower-middle class followers to consistently vote against their economic interests and in support of the economic interests of the ultra-rich. If you look at the tactics employed by the Tea Party, you start to see clues as to why the rural poor in Pakistan continue to vote for the entrenched moneyed interests (feudal in Sindh and capitalistic in Punjab).