|

Political novice takes on entrenched parties in landmark polls

Young furniture maker finds Pakistan's status quo hard to unseat

The Washington Post

Winning a grass-roots political campaign in Pakistan or anywhere else depends on having committed, hardworking volunteers. Iftikhar Ali Mashwani, an aspiring provincial lawmaker, has come to realize that his supporters are neither.

“When I go into the villages and the fields, I should see my flags on the roadsides and rooftops. I should see my posters. And I don’t,” Mashwani, a furniture salesman, chided followers gathered in his small lumberyard in northwestern Pakistan. “This campaign is not up to the mark!”

Running on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) ticket headed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, Mashwani, 35, is learning tough lessons as he scrabbles for votes against well-established foes in this largely rural area.

On May 11, Pakistanis will choose the next prime minister in an election hailed as a landmark of democratic progress for a country ruled by the military for nearly half its 65-year history. Yet decades of tradition dictate why democracy has remained more of a concept than a reality.

Even as Pakistan prepares to witness its first democratic transition of power, elite political families, powerful landholders and pervasive patronage and corruption undermine the prospects of a truly representational democracy, political analysts say.

The dominant Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), have the money, experience and connections that Mashwani does not as a novice contender from an upstart party.

As in the U.S., Pakistan has what amounts to an entrenched two-party system, but even less space exists for reformers and newcomers from lower classes. For decades, critics say, the parties have been run like insular family businesses whose only goal is to perpetuate their power and plunder national resources.

The Pakistani military, by contrast, is well respected by the public and not afraid to muscle into politics. It has overthrown weak governments three times with general public support. During periods of civilian rule, the army also wields great influence behind the scenes.

Over the years, U.S. officials have seen only diminishing returns in their democracy-promoting efforts. The upcoming election, while historic, will not necessarily solve anything. Pakistan remains under siege by insurgents and shot through with corruption — and it is still a beggar nation seemingly always on the brink of collapse.

Most analysts predict the election will result in a fractured Parliament dominated by a coalition of old-guard politicians, with Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a two-time prime minister, likely to reclaim the job 14 years after he was ousted in a coup.

“I see elections not bringing change,” said Shamshad Ahmad, a former foreign secretary under Sharif. “Without a change in the system there will be the same feudalized, elitist hierarchy that remains in power.

“Let’s hope a new culture is being born that civilians must take responsibility and take the reins in their hands. When our rulers show their ability to take good decisions, the army will stay in its space,” said Ahmad.

The chance of new rulers being minted appears greater in this election. Voters across Pakistan say they have given up hope of improving their lot with retread politicians. So they are turning to untested candidates such as Mashwani. He is among some 1,400 candidates vying for 99 seats in the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan’s volatile northwest.

Asked about his top issues, Mashwani does not mention Khan’s hard line against U.S. drone attacks or support for negotiations with the Taliban. Instead, he talks about better public schools and about giving local officials more say over what roads to pave or sanitation lines to install.

But he faces stark realities. He has no base and no record to run on. His volunteers are small traders, farmers and teachers of meager means. And Mashwani said he has no money to pay hired hands to get out the vote, as other politicians do.

Many who back Mashwani, while full of idealism, say knocking on doors, putting up posters and other electioneering requires too much sacrifice — they can’t afford to lose any working hours.

Mashwani, who joined the then-fledgling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf five years ago, is the beneficiary of a major change implemented by Khan: The party opened its candidate selection process to novices such as Mashwani through intraparty elections. The dominant parties do not do so, often awarding slots to friends, family, tribal members and former officials.

Khan’s approach deepened his man of the people credentials, but at the risk of losing in some constituencies. So the party hedged its bets in other races by picking familiar faces known locally as “electables” — old-line politicians who abandoned their previous affiliations to take a chance with Khan.

The problem with electables is that they undercut Khan’s claim to be a reformer and have alienated some of his youthful followers. But the problem with the likes of Mashwani is that they are easily mowed down in constituencies such as his.

Before sustaining serious injuries Tuesday and having to be hospitalized, some national polls showed Khan running a strong second to Sharif, the PML-N head. But established party leaders say Mashwani will not enjoy a coattails effect.

“He is not in any position to make a breakthrough,” said the local PML-N candidate, Iftikhar Mohmand, 63, previously elected five times to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. “His party is too raw. It’s too young.”

Khan and his candidates have only “small kids roaming around putting up flags,” said Sher Afghan Khan, 52, the PPP candidate and incumbent. “I have delivered projects. I do all kinds of work for the people. I go to their weddings and funerals.”

Some political experts see Khan’s efforts and his candidates paving the way for a more democratized Pakistan just by picking up a meaningful bloc of seats from which to challenge the status quo, even if it is unlikely that Khan will become prime minister.

“Can he prevail? Difficult to say at this point,” said Rasul Baksh Rais at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Has he changed Pakistani politics forever? I think he has. He has a presence in every corner of the country.”