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A sympathy wave: myth or reality?
By Cyril Almeida

IN the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, election talk has centred on a ‘sympathy wave’ at the ballot box for the Pakistan People’s Party. As politicians have sparred over and commentators tussled with the wave, number-crunching and dispassionate electoral analysis has been pushed aside.

On the eve of Pakistan’s eighth general election, little light has been shed on the wave phenomenon. What constitutes a wave and will there be one? Does the wave even matter?

Several factors are important. One: Indisputably, a successful wave will be measured against the PPP’s success in elections past. But what is the measure of a successful wave?

The answer, as it turns out, is complicated. A good starting point is the percentage of total votes cast for the PPP.

The party has never won more than 40 per cent of the votes in any election since 1988. In the last two elections, this figure remained between 20 per cent and 26 per cent.

If the PPP bags 40 per cent of the votes on Feb 18, the party will undoubtedly claim that their predictions of a wave are validated. But this figure would only return the party to its base support, given that the party claimed widespread rigging against it in the last two rounds of elections.

A more promising measure of the wave would be the total number of votes the party bags. The PPP’s vote bank has been lodged firmly in the region of 7.5 million to 8 million votes since 1988, barring the catastrophic elections of 1997 where its take was nearly halved.

If more votes make a wave, then the PPP has good reason to worry. In 2002, the party bagged fewer votes than it did in 1988, despite the fact that the total number of votes cast increased by over 10 million over the same period.

How can the PPP get its vote bank to cross 10 million, a figure that would be clear enough to constitute a sympathy wave? Well, the party needs a higher turnout on election day.

Achieving that may be difficult. In the five elections held since 1988, the turnout has ranged between 35 per cent and 45 per cent. In 1988, the first election contested by the PPP since its founder was killed, the turnout was only 40 per cent.

If the history and numbers are not on the PPP’s side, then the current climate holds even less promise. If voters perceive that the manufactured ‘transition to democracy’ scheme concocted by the president will not be dislodged, a perception that last year’s events will have reinforced, then the party will struggle to energise the electorate beyond its base.

Within the party, the unseemly public quarrelling over the prime ministerial slot has reminded many of Zardari’s uneasy relationship with the party rank and file.

Second: A successful wave cannot be confined to a surge in the smaller provinces. In the ‘first past the post’ system of parliamentary elections such as that in Pakistan, the true measure of electoral success is the number of seats a party bags. The PPP has always done well in elections in terms of the overall votes captured, finishing in the top two in all the elections since 1988. But in the high-water mark for the party in the 1993 elections, the party actually won fewer votes nationally than the PML-N. Votes do not necessarily translate into seats.

If the sympathy wave is confined to Sindh, the PPP group in parliament may be little different to the one in 2002. With 20 out of 61 seats available in Karachi and the party’s ability to outmuscle the MQM in urban Sindh considered slim, even a sweep of the rest of the province will mean only a handful of seats more than the 27 it picked up in 2002.

It is no secret that national elections are won or lost in the Punjab, and any successful wave must sweep through this province. Northern Punjab has never been kind to the PPP, so the focus will be on central and southern Punjab. And this is where the issue becomes more complicated.

The PPP was routed in central and southern Punjab in 1997 and struggled again for traction there in 2002. With 134 seats up for grabs there, the party cannot afford a losing trifecta.

The problem for a PPP wave is that the region is mired in a three-party fight, often complicated by powerful independent candidates. The Nawaz league was leaderless and picked apart by the state apparatus in 2002. This time around, the Sharif brothers are back and campaigning on a platform that gained much traction amongst the public last year: rejecting President Musharraf’s modus operandi in his so-called transition to democracy.

Meanwhile, the PML-Q is limping and on the back foot, but state backing nevertheless makes it a formidable contender. Will the PML-N, PML-Q and a cohort of independent candidates be successful in smothering a sympathy wave in southern and central Punjab? The possibility is real.

Third: Rigging. It is an ever present threat and one that makes the PML-Q a formidable force still in the Punjab. The Citizen’s Group on Electoral Process, a credible body sponsored by PILDAT, has this to say on rigging: “In fact, after such a thoroughly unfair pre-poll process, the need for any manipulation in the polling-day process should be drastically reduced.”

For the wave analysis, of particular interest is the group’s assessment of the correctness, completeness and credibility of the electoral rolls. In its report on pre-poll rigging, the group states: “The process of addition of 27 million ‘missing’ voters is rather shrouded in mystery and it is not clear how well the verification was carried out by the ECP.”

Votes can only be cast by people on the list, and if the electoral rolls disproportionately affect PPP supporters, the wave could already have been thwarted.

Election day offers further opportunity to suppress the wave. Polling stations set up in terrain inhospitable and dangerous for PPP voters could suppress the party’s vote count, particularly amongst women and the elderly.

Fourth: History is only a guide. Extrapolating from past electoral results whether there will be a wave or not is fraught with problems, not least because all results since 1988 are believed to have been massaged to some degree. Equally, the pundits’ glib pronouncements ought to be taken with a heavy dose of scepticism.

Nawaz Sharif is illustrative of the perils faced by those who live by the pen. The former prime minister’s political obituary has been written many times since last summer. First, acknowledgement of a deal with Musharraf was supposed to have killed off his chances in the elections. Then the tepid response to his attempted return to Pakistan in September was pounced upon as proof of a leader past his prime. U-turns on participating in elections were cited as evidence of a leader adrift.

Now, as the election day approaches, the consensus is that the PML-N is poised to strike a blow to the ruling party. If Sharif somehow succeeds in restoring the deposed judges, erstwhile critics will trot out hagiographies of Pakistan’s latest saviour.

So will there be a sympathy wave? In truth, the answer to that will only be known on Feb 18.

The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer. He can be reached at

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