Pakistan’s politics of betrayal and defection

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By Adnan Rehmat

A staple spectre of peculiar Pakistan-style politics is back to haunt the country’s beleaguered democracy: defection. Reports abound of a group of over one dozen opposition legislators of Punjab Assembly belonging to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N having met the party’s nemesis – Prime Minister Imran Khan at his Islamabad residence a few days ago. Some reports even claim the would-be defectors included members of the National Assembly and one belonging to former president Asif Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). All this comes against the backdrop of what the government terms accountability, but the opposition sees as a witch-hunt.  

While there have been muted denials, at least two PML-N legislators have admitted to the meeting and rumours that there is a conspiracy afoot to engineer a betrayal among the opposition ranks has been lent a degree of credibility. Naturally, this has evoked statements of alarm, anger and warnings from PML-N and PPP.

But the ‘need’ of a ruling party to induce defections from opposition ranks is as old as electoral democracy in Pakistan. It is a phenomenon rooted in multi-party parliamentary politics in which Pakistan’s pluralist polity makes it difficult to garner simple majorities in an election. This makes it not just difficult to form a government but also to operate legislative agendas for which an outright majority is required.

Pakistan’s democracy has been blighted by a history of political blackmail driven by the unhealthy compulsion of political parties to gather turncoats from the opposition and to make up for shortcomings in their own numerical majority. This has resulted in the misrepresentation of the will of majority voters in parliament.

Over the decades, many legislators elected by supporters of one party have ended up being willingly poached by other parties in exchange for political favours to the detriment of voters’ rights. 

Often this has resulted in grossly unfair parliamentary outcomes that have distorted Pakistan’s political evolution beyond measure. In the 2002 elections, the largest party, PML-Q, midwifed by General Musharraf was 17 short of a simple majority. It poached 18 legislators of the PPP to prop itself up.   

The same happened in the 2018 election, and that was what eventually brought Imran Khan’s PTI to power. It fell about two dozen legislators short of a simple majority to form a government. It promptly did what it always professed against, and what other parties have often done in the past – employed a loophole in Pakistani election laws that allows independent legislators to join any party within a fortnight of winning elections. Quickly, it made up most of the numbers through ‘independents’ (all of whom had defeated the PTI’s own official candidates), plus some smaller parties. 

So, if PTI made up the numbers required to form a government by this legal but arguably unethical means, why the sense of urgency after a year in power to swell up their ranks further now? Because the PTI needs to cover up its dismal legislative performance, (made possible by a tough opposition), to counter blackmailing by its coalition members, as well as the original set of ‘independent turncoats’ to get enough opposition turncoats to be able to pass laws and carry out reforms.  

The reality is that if Imran Khan is serious enough, he will succeed in getting a number of opposition MPs to betray their parties – many of them have made an art out of hopping between parties. Indeed, the ruling party cabinet of ministers is two-thirds full of turncoats already – and join PTI’s merry motley crew of past betrayers of their parent parties. That’s because Pakistan’s political history reeks with the stench of parliamentarians defecting to other parties either willingly or under coercion. 

Of the eleven national elections in Pakistan’s history, only three times did the ruling party secure a simple majority to form a government, while in seven elections, the largest party took on coalition partners and wooed turncoats to form a government. It’s a sad reflection on the quality of democracy in Pakistan, because even when parties secure a simple majority, they fail to sustain political stability, either because of their shortcomings or due to conspiracies from anti-democratic forces.

In the 1970 election, Awami League of Sheikh Mujeeb won a majority but was denied government formation, leading to the break-up of the country and the emergence of Bangladesh. In 1977, the PPP of Zulfikar Bhutto won an absolute majority but within weeks was toppled in a military coup by General Zia. Then in the 1997 elections,  Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N secured a two-thirds majority but was also toppled within two years in a military coup by General Musharraf. 

Each of Pakistan’s three leaders who did not need turncoats were either assassinated or jailed. Pakistan needs to clean up its stinking Augean stables of politics through inclusionary democracy. But the PTI government doesn’t want to be the first to do it. 

(Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1)