A Look at Pre-Election Theories from the Comfort of Hindsight, or What Were We Thinking? | Bushra Zaidi’s Blog | Elections 2013

May 2013

This has been an election for testing theories.

I say this because in spite of the vast unknowns prior to the elections, many analysts offered some reasonable explanations of what could happen (some of which are summarized here). This should by no means be discouraged, since a) elections don’t happen very often in Pakistan and b) good data is very hard to come by. Surveys are expensive, infrequent, and difficult to verify. A dearth of good household level socio-demographic data makes locating voter preferences (outside of how they say they’re going to vote) impossible. This was an election of unknown unknowns, and therefore, one for surprises and upsets.

The biggest surprise, let’s face it: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) lost. Badly.

Not only did it lose, it lost in spite of the entire arsenal available to it as the incumbent party: the ability to run expensive campaigns, to buy electables, and outright fraud. It lost in spite of several theories (including my own) on how the party, and how Zardari, could hold on to a sizable part of the lower house in government – theories ranging from the reasoned to the ludicrous.

And some surveys seemed to back that up. Gallup-PILDAT predicted a stable 13% popularity for the PPP in Punjab, and Herald-SDPI went one step further by reporting 29% of their respondents said they’d vote for the PPP. More worryingly, Gallup consistently under-reported Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)’s popularity (possibly betraying a bias that stems from a deep and devoted love for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)). This seemed to suggest, quite sensibly, that the PPP would mop up where the PML-N could not penetrate, and PTI had no base – in the south.

(An aside: The Herald-SDPI poll is even more baffling: three months before the polls, 29% of their respondents claimed to vote PPP. The People’s Party ended up with exactly half of that in vote shares. Opinions don’t swing that fast.)

Given the spectrum of survey results it is tempting to conclude that national-level, or even regional-level, polls don’t matter. Because no one does constituency-level polling, because popularity can only partially predict vote shares across the country, and not the number of seats, etc. Theory number one: Surveys Get it Wrong.

But, the International Republican Institute (IRI) got it right. The IRI’s November 2012 poll, accessible partially through leaks online, was eerily bang-on.

This is what they predicted nationally:

Party IRI November 2012 survey “who would you vote for (if elections were held today)?” (%) Gallup-Pakistan “first choice” for voters (%) Dawn vote share 2013 (%)
Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz 32 39 35
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf 18 7 17.8
Pakistan People’s Party 14 18 15.7
Muttahida Qaumi Movement 4 5.6
Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid 2 3.2
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rehman 2 2.9


This is what they had for Punjab:

Party IRI November 2012 survey “who would you vote for (if elections were held today)?” (%) Gallup-Pakistan “first choice” for voters (%) Dawn vote share 2013 (%)
Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz 49 54 49
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf 19 8 19
Pakistan People’s Party 8 13 11
Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid 7 5

Holy shiese.

An international Republican conspiracy? Or some rigorous, sensible surveying? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take these guys a lot more seriously from now on.

What the IRI got right, and the rest of us got wrong, is that PPP’s vote in Punjab is receding. And tentatively, that PPP voters in Punjab do switch votes. They didn’t stay at home (we can safely say Punjab has had one of the highest turnouts since the 1970s), and they didn’t vote how their landlords told them to (Omar Waraich, who penned this article for The Caravan this month, stands vindicated.) The PML-N picked up seats in Multan (trumping both heavyweights PPP’s Ali Musa and PTI’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi), against Kaira in Gujrat and Ashraf in Rawalpindi, and dented PPP strongholds in Rajanpur, Rahimyar Khan and Muzzafargarh. Of the 50 seats south of Multan where the PPP was expected to pick up at least 20, the party only managed 2. The rest went to the PML-N (32), PTI (3), independents (10) and others.

So much for theories that the south resents PML-N’s focus on developing Lahore. Turns out peri-urban constituencies dream of motorways and Metrobuses too (even if they can barely afford a bicycle, to paraphrase the great Mohammed Hanif). The Punjabi Dream peddled by the PML-N – electricity, roads, jobs – resonated with many PPP voters. Theirs was an aspirational vote.
That’s the good news – that some national-level surveys can predict broad trends. The bad news is there’s still no way of accurately predicting where old, disgruntled, new, and first-time voters will take their vote. Or indeed, where they took their vote. Pre-election theory number two: Will PTI eat into the PMLN’s vote? Or will it eat into PPP’s?

Welcome to NA-148 and NA-149, the infamous Multan I and Multan II.

In Multan I (a rural constituency), Shah Mahmood Qureshi won the seat for the PPP in 2008 with over 83,000 votes. When he resigned to join the PTI, the former prime minister’s son, Ali Musa Gilani, picked up the seat with a thumping 93,000 votes in February 2012. Runner up Abdul Ghaffar Dogar (PML-N) bagged just under 43,000 votes. Dogar won this time with 81,748 votes, Qureshi came second with 64,719 and Ali Musa third with 50,205. Arguably, the anti-PML-N vote was split between two PPP rivals (something very similar happened in NA-86 Jhang, where a former PPP incumbent stood on a PTI ticket… and lost to PML-N).

In Multan II (an urban constituency), Javed Hashmi stood on the PML-N ticket in 2008 and secured about 70,900 votes. PPP’s Malik Salahuddin Dogar was runner-up with over 45,000 votes, and PML-Q’s Tahir Rasheed got around 11,000 votes. This time around Hashmi stood on a PTI ticket and won with a vote count of over 83,000. Rasheed fought on the PML-N ticket and received a serious bump – over 63,000 votes, to give some sense of the “brand value” of a PML-N ticket in these elections – to bring his runner-up total to 73,861. The PPP contested with Malik Salahuddin’s son and trailed with 20,703 votes (shedding over half its votes from ’08). Given that PML-N also increased its vote share in this constituency, it looks like both parties benefited from the votes that PPP hemorrhaged – in spite of the fact that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, the incumbent here.

These are by no means conclusive explanations for the outcomes. In NA-50 Rawalpindi, for example, the PPP’s Ghulam Satti lost nearly half his vote share (placing him at par with PTI), the PML-Q didn’t have a candidate in the constituency, and the turnout went up by 6%. PML-N’s incumbent, Abbasi, upped his previous count by over 33,000 votes – partially PML-Q, but also partially benefiting from the pro-PML-N wave that polls predicted.

On the one hand, there’s evidence that the PTI and PPP split the anti-PMLN vote. But in places, the massive surge PML-N experienced could not have been countered even if the other two had allied. In political science, the crushing disappointment PTI’s “cookie-distributing election virgins” (and some eager analysts) are experiencing is called the first-past-the-post system.
Since this is meant to be a post about PPP’s massive election defeat, let’s turn finally to a major pillar of the party’s campaign – the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP). Passed by an act of Parliament, this cross-party approved program supported by World Bank, USAID, DFID and others gave unconditional cash grant to women from very poor household that met an internationally-approved Poverty Score Card. Oh, and the cash came from ATM cards with PPP’s assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto’s face on them. That brings us to the third theory that crashed: PPP’s BISP program equals pre-election rigging.

Suddenly all the people crowing very loudly about how the World Bank/DFID/USAID were “helping PPP win the elections” have become very, very quiet. An internationally-tested and approved method of giving cash grants to the chronically poor does not, in fact, translate into patronage. Equally, it’s a lesson learnt for the PPP: handing out little plastic ATM cards with your dead leader’s face on it does not count as an election campaign.

To pursue this (pseudo-)scientifically, the two hypotheses around the BISP broadly stated that where PPP was incumbent, it would use the cash grants to secure its votes. And where it was a runner-up, BISP would give it a boost. In PPP’s Sindh heartland, high levels of poverty overlap with the party’s traditional stronghold. If the first statement holds true, PPP vote shares should have gone up in Shikarpur, Khairpur, Badin, Thatta, and everywhere that over 50% of the population is eligible for BISP. What we do know is that PPP’s vote share went down by at least 5% in Sindh. To add insult to injury, it actually lost its seat in NA-202 Shikarpur, where incumbent Aftab Shaaban Mirani was barely able to improve his standing by 6000 votes post-BISP, and lost to his runner-up in 2008 (the National Peoples Party’s Ibrahim Jatoi) by under 2000 votes.

To test hypothesis number two: BISP would help PPP take over poor constituencies in southern Punjab where it was incumbent or runner up. In fact, PPP’s social protection scheme did not prevent it from getting thrashed in NA-175 Rajanpur (a district with 30-50% of the population eligible for BISP) by PML-N’s Drishak by a margin of one hundred thousand votes. To be fair, PPP’s incumbent in the constituency Dost Mazari left the party and took his 73,000 votes with him.

To sum up, here are some lessons learnt from 2013 in Punjab. Campaigns and messages matter. There will be lots written on this in weeks to come, but PML-N’s message on delivering electricity resonated in Punjab. Performance matters, which is why many new voters took a chance on old wine in old bottles, instead of the PTI. And a party ticket can make or break you. A party with a terrible reputation can crush your electoral chances (think hardworking, savvy PPP veteran Firdous Ashiq Awan) and a relatively weak candidate with the right brand can come out on top (think PTI’s dark horse in Lahore, Shafqat Mahmood). This, then, is New Pakistan – where party institutions and manifestos begin to matter more than individuals.

Bushra Zaidi is a pseudonym.


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