A handful of ruling party lawmakers have switched sides. But that’s something they always do.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing the severest challenge to his four-year rule as a reinvigorated opposition pushes a no-confidence resolution through the parliament that could potentially force him to step down.
At the heart of Khan’s worries is a small group of lawmakers from his own party—Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)— who have switched sides.
Khan’s government was elected to power in 2018 after a popular mobilisation shunned the established political parties which have taken turns to rule the economically-battered South Asian country for decades.
But his government was only able to win enough majority in the lower house, the National Assembly, after a host of politicians known for jumping onto the winning ship joined PTI before the election.
These lawmakers are the so-called “electables,” politicians belonging to land-owning families or tribes who hold sway over their constituencies.
“Electables are the landlords and spiritual leaders with a massive following, and they have been winning votes to get into parliament since before 1947,” when Pakistan gained independence from the British colonial rule, says Ahmad Ijaz, an Islamabad-based political analyst.
“In Pakistani politics, tribal and sectarian affiliations matter a lot. People vote for prominent people from their own communities.”
In the local lingo, electables are referred to as “lotas.” A lota is the water pot with a narrow funnel that South Asians use in toilets to maintain hygiene.
Around two dozen PTI lawmakers have defected to the opposition in recent days. Some of them, such as Aamir Talal Gopang, were once part of the opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN).
A group of opposition parties known as the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) has mounted a challenge to Prime Minister Khan, saying he no longer enjoys the confidence of the majority in the parliament.
With 172 seats in the 342-member house, Khan’s government holds what is known as a simple majority—a nudge here or there, and his hold becomes vulnerable.
But here’s the thing: it depends on support from small regional parties to make up that majority as its own members number 155. Now those allies, including the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), have given mixed signals about their commitment to the alliance.
Amid all of this, the defection of a dozen or so lawmakers could be a serious blow for Khan when the no-confidence motion goes to vote on March 25.
In a bizarre show, some PTI defectors are holed up in a hostel in Islamabad under the opposition’s control. From there, they gave interviews to TV anchors about how their “conscience” provoked them to abandon their party.
Khan’s government, on the other hand, has accused the opposition of horse-trading PTI members with bribes going as high as $1 million.
Leaders with benefits
A look at the profiles of some of the defected members shows that they have switched loyalties on multiple occasions without worrying about voter backlash.
Lawmakers including Noor Alam Khan, Raja Riaz, Ramesh Kumar and Basit Bukhari were part of the two main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and PMLN at some point in the past.
“Electables are part of a rural phenomenon where fraternal ties and tribal affiliations matter a lot. When people vote for someone from their own community, they expect benefits in return,” says Khalid Manzoor Butt, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Government College University Lahore (GC University).
The vast majority of Pakistan’s 220 million people live in small towns and villages where family connections and tribal links play an important role in matters ranging from marriages to businesses.
Some political families send more than one member to the parliament, at times on tickets from different political parties.
Weak governance and the failure of the state to provide services have helped politicians in rural areas cement their hold, as they dictate the appointment of government officials, including police officers in their constituencies, says Butt.
“The decision of the electables to join a party is not driven by ideology. Imran Khan made the same mistake and came to rely on them because he was too inclined to win and form a government. Now the electables are moving on to better options,” he says.
Who cares about the party?
The electables who can now decide Imran Khan’s fate are part of the British colonial legacy.
English administrators patronised rural elites and helped them maintain a hold over the local population. A well-entrenched caste system allowed landlords to exercise control over the farmers who tilled their lands and also have their support.
Even Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had to strike an alliance with influential politicians in Punjab during the crucial 1945-46 elections, right before the country’s independence, says Ahmad Ijaz.
Little has changed since then when it comes to how politicians are elected. He says that political parties have struggled to cultivate an ideologically-driven voter base in villages and small towns where the bulk of the people live.
“There’s a reason why even the biggest political parties in Pakistan don’t have a real idea about their vote bank at the grassroots level. They don’t do surveys; they don’t have political offices in districts. So they rely on prominent faces to help them get the votes,” says Ijaz, who has studied Pakistan’s electoral politics for over a decade.
Influential politicians often fight the election as independent candidates, and they have helped sustain successive governments, including Khan’s.
GC University’s Butt says politicians with no fixed loyalties keep winning year after year because people don’t seem to mind them switching sides.
“This system can not change until the public rejects it. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon because of illiteracy and lack of political awareness.”