The coming to Pakistan of Pakistan Awami Tehrik chief Allama Dr Tahirul Qadri does not seem linked to the crossing over of PPP stalwarts to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, but since both are happening in the midst of other political developments, most notably local body elections in Punjab and Sindh in September, they might have more of a link than the two parties having been together during the sit-in in Islamabad. PAT ended the sit-in first, avowedly so that its members could mark Eidul Azha at home, but this year, it seems, Dr Qadri as decided to mark Eidul Fitr in Pakistan.

What is not sure whether he will hold a sit-in (at the old stand of D-Chowk, Islamabad) or not, and if he does, what will his reason be. He was given a reason last year, in the shape of the shooting of PAT workers by police, as they resisted the removal of the party Secretariat. However, while he had carried out the sit-in for the registration of a case against Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif, his effort did not produce the desired result. True, Law Minister Rana Sanaulllah had to resign, and a case was registered according to Dr Qadri’s wishes, against Mian Shahbaz, but nine months later, the results have not met Dr Qadri’s expectations. Rana Sana is back in The Cabinet with his old portfolio, and Mian Shahbaz was not only never arrested, but he has now been exonerated by the Joint Investigation which was appointed for the case. The Punjab Governor who had persuaded Dr Qadri to go home peacefully after arriving in Lahore last year, Ghulam Sarwar, has not just left his job, but joined the PTI, thus lending credence to the talk of the London meeting between Dr Qadri and PTI chief Mr Khan, with former Governor Sarwar also present. That meeting was supposed to have been prompted by the two men’s military backers, ISI and military intelligence. If true, it can be safely assumed that the two men are on the same page, but are also rivals.

It is therefore important that the PTI is nowadays accepting joinings from the PPP, including a full federal minister in Nazar Muhammad Gondal, and a minister of state in Samsam Bukhari. Apart from Bukhari, another Okara district stalwart, Ashraf Sohna, also switched. Okara is important as a swing district, but also as the home of PPP Central Punjab President Manzoor Wattoo. These seem to be manoeuvrings before the coming local body polls. These polls are being held on party basis. Even on partyless basis, the parties put up candidates, and even local combinations need party tickets now. There might be a purely local need to oppose someone (such as in Okara, where Wattoo first contested a local body poll in 1964, and had contested since, parleying his Chairmanship of the Okara District Council into the Speakership of the Punjab Assembly), and thus a need to join a party. The PML-N has got its hands full with a massive provincial majority, the PPP is looking more and more like a perpetual loser, so the PTI is left.

This also marks a trend where the PTI takes over the PPP vote bank, especially in the Punjab. While the PPP men’s switching did reflect the hard work put in by ex-Governor Sarwar, who has become head of the Punjab PTI, as the party follows other parties in having appointed office-bearers, it also reflects the how tired the PPP is of losing. The exit of Ashraf Sohna is noteworthy, for he had been part of the 1993-1996 Wattoo government, and thus brought to an end an association with the party stretching over decades. Clearly, Sohna finds the PTI ideology close enough to the PPP’s not to have to leave his comfort zone. The PTI may well not appeal to the hard-core left, but it does appeal to that part of the PPP that, while liberal and sympathetic to the left, is strongly patriotic and identifies as religious.

Dr Qadri also aspires to take over the same vote-bank. His emphasis on a liberal, virtually socialist, economic programme, reflects the original PPP manifesto. PTI and PAT also have the attraction of being backed by the agencies. For politicians, such backing is an attraction, because it is supposed to mean that the party’s ticket holders will be delivered a certain number of votes. However, though Imran has established a presence on the political stage, Dr Qadri has not. The local body polls thus present an opportunity for him to do so.

It must also be noted that the PTI and PAT are both out of the political consensus which exists in opposition to an Army takeover, but which has been frayed by PPP co-Chairman Asif Zardari’s recent remarks. Another reason for the fraying, those same local body polls, has been covered up. It must not be forgotten that the major parties dislike local body polls as much as the military, and the PTI and PAT, approve of them. At the same time, the coming polls are unprecedented as they are party-based. Previous polls, stretching back to 1872, when the Raj first introduced local councils, were all party less. Indeed, Ayub Khan kept the councils party less even when he had founded a party for the national and provincial assemblies. It was not just Ayub Khan, but also the PML-N that conducted party less elections in 1987 and 1992, even though the legislatures in existence had been elected on party basis. The 2005 local body polls under the Musharraf regime were party-based, but at that time there were no legislatures. Thus, while this is not the first party-based local body poll, it will be the first conducted by a government itself elected on party basis. Everyone – the Election Commission of Pakistan, the government, the parties, the candidate, is thus unsure. The provincial governments are also insecure as the election is to be supervised by the ECP, not the Provincial Election Authorities of yesteryear. That further loosens their control, as the ECP is a federal institution, but is outside the control of politicians.

Dr Qadri may find that he is too late. His appeal to the military was that he had a following among the religious constituency during the War on Terror, during which he opposed the militants. However, the War on Terror is now coming to an end, and the need to have an Allama arrayed against the militants is not so pressing. He has also failed to gather support, and the local body polls may well represent the last chance he has to get on the bandwagon. So far he has not attracted into his ranks the kind of electables that are entering the PTI. Those who deliver votes in provincial or national polls, do so par excellence in the elections, which are causing all to converge.