What happens after an independence referendum?

September 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

There’s been a lot of verbiage following Scotland’s vote last Thursday, much of it opinionated ranting. It has been exceptionally tempting to join in but I don’t feel I have anything to say which is particularly new or insightful, and yet another “you are all missing the point” blog is hardly going to do any more than add to the noise.

So instead here’s some history and facts.

I haven’t done an exhaustive search but a quick Google survey suggests that there have been 60 independence referendums* in the modern era (ie since the 1800s when the concept of a nation state first started to take on meaning). This is ignoring various online polls or diaspora organised bits of nonsense such as the online plebiscite in Venice earlier this year. I’m also ignoring West Papua’s ridiculous “Act of Free Choice” in which the Indonesian army hand selected 1000 West Papuans who, surprise surprise, voted that West Papua should join Indonesia. I am however including a bunch of referendums that are only slightly more credible – in the interests of simplicity I’ve drawn some quite arbitrary definitions.

Edit: (see bottom) now 73…ish

So 60 referendums worth the name. One of these, Micronesia’s in 1983, wasn’t quite an independence referendum*. The question was “do you want to join a free association with the USA” followed by “if not, do you want full independence or an alternative, write your alternative in the box”. It was a leading question and it resulted in the expected answer – a free association. Micronesia then evolved full sovereignty within the free association over the next few years. 59 to go.

* What was now Micronesia did actually vote for independence in 1975, but it was a 6 question referendum and Micronseians voted in favour of three of the options, including the status quo option, so America went with that. That same elections saw the Marshall Islands and Palau vote strongly against independence.

27 of these referendums I consider to be less interesting than the others in that they essentially ratified the existence of already de-facto states. None of these has surprising or interesting results: all were easily won by the yes camp with a greater or lesser degree of credibility, and in most cases it made no difference to the politics of the day; it simply validated what was already known (or didn’t depending on the geopolitics).

- 4 (Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia) came from the break up of Yugoslavia (actually this is a little harsh on Slovenia whose referendum slightly predated, and arguably perpetuated, the break up – but regardless is better understood through the rubric of Yugoslavia’s breakup).

- 9 (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) came from the break up of the Soviet Union. These referendums were particularly dull as there really wasn’t any alternative to independence.

- 8 (Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia twice, Transnistria twice, Donetsk, and Lugansk) were from what the Russians would object to me calling Russian puppet states (so I won’t) and concerned de facto independent breakaway republics in the former Soviet Union who enjoy good relations with Moscow. You will think of these as your politics dictates.

- 3 (Eritrea, East Timor and South Sudan) came out of peace talks at the end of bloody civil wars which had in any case already been all-but won by the separatists.

- 3 are historical curios. Moldova’s 1994 referendum: “do you want to remain part of Moldova?” (with no alternative given) was a fairly needless passive aggressive swipe at Romania. Southern Rhodesia’s (now Zimbabwe) 1964 referendum was part of Ian Smith’s tireless campaign to be the most irritating and embarrassing of all the British Empire’s racist colonial hangers-on. And in 1945 Cambodia, still under Japanese occupation, had a referendum on declaring independence from France (while still remaining a Japanese puppet state, natch) which had the magnificently biased wording “would you like to be free as King Jayavarman VII was when he built Angkor Wat?” A proposal which was passed by 541,470 votes to 0.

So that leaves us with 33 referendums which I would consider non trivial. Of those 14 were won by no*, 11 were won by yes and that result led to independence, and 8 were won by yes but independence was never granted. I think its worth briefly looking at each in turn.

* this includes the two rigged Djibouti referendums which were followed by a third successful one.

Successful yes votes

- Algeria 1962 This came out of the peace talks following the Algerian civil war and indeed I almost considered throwing it into a category above. But Algeria was still clearly a part of France at the time so it qualifies as a slightly more meaningful referendum. In the sordid bloody history of the French occupation of Algeria this is about the one thing the French got right: a referendum was held, there was a 99.7% yes vote on a 91.2% turnout and the French respected the result. Tens of thousands of lives could have been spared if this had been the start rather than the end of the civil war and the end, rather than the start, of meddling in Algerian politics. Since then Algerian politics has been pretty grim, but life wasn’t exactly fantastic under the French either.

- Bahrain 1970 Another straightforward one I considered placing in one of the categories above. Britain wanted out of Bahrain one way or another; this vote was merely to decide if Bahrain was to declare independence or join Iran. It chose the former much to the relief of its significant Sunni minority, but its Shia majority was enough to quash any hope of it joining the UAE. Bahrain is doing about as well as can be expected from a former British colony in the middle east wracked with ethnic division and containing a bunch of petrochemicals and not much else.

- Djibouti 1960, 1967, 1977 A case of “third time’s the charm”. France managed to rig the first two of Djibouti’s independence referendums but lacked the resources or political will to do it a third time and Yes finally won by 99.8% in 1977. The long term consequence of these rigged polls was that the expectation (explicit in the first poll and implicit in the second) that an independent Djibouti would merge with Somalia would remain unrealised, as by 1977 Somalia was in no fit state to merge with anything. Since then Djiboutian politics has been pretty grim, but life wasn’t exactly fantastic under the French either. Djibouti remains the only country to declare independence following previous referendum results won by the no campaign.

Edit I realise I also missed the referendum in Comoros in 1975 Without looking into it more closely it seems that it went down in a similar fashion to Djibouti. Most of Comoros voted overwhelmingly for independence but Mayotte voted strongly against, and so it remains part of France to this day.

- Guinea 1958 Arguably this shouldn’t be on this list, and arguably Niger should, but I’m drawing arbitrary lines to keep this simple. In 1958 France and all remaining French colonies voted on the constitution of the 5th republic, the idea being to provide stability after the chaos of the 4th republic and to solidify Charles De Gaulle’s position as inaugural president. It was explicitly made clear that in addition to the constitution needing an overall majority from the empire to pass (which it easily got) a no vote from any colony would mean that colony’s expulsion – ie independence.

However 1958 is pretty early on in the history of the anti-colonial movement and – while there was a small but significant no vote in French Polynesia, what is now Djibouti, and Madagascar – there was only a concerted independence campaign in Niger and Guinea. In Niger they fell a long way short (22%) but in Guinea 95% of the population rejected the constitution. France accepted the result and respected Guinea’s independence declaration that followed shortly after. However they then set out to destroy Guinea through sanctions and non co-operation. This drove Guinea into further poverty and the arms of the Soviets.

- Iceland 1944 This probably would have happened anyway at some stage but was hastened, and the result made less close (99.5% for yes and 98.5% for declaring a republic) by the fact that Denmark was under Nazi occupation at the time and Iceland wasn’t. Given those circumstances it was a surprisingly civil affair and King/ex-King Christian X even sent a message of congratulations to the Icelandic people afterwards. Iceland has been doing pretty well since.

- Liberia 1846 Liberia was founded by freed slaves in 1820 as a self-governing American colony. In 1846 they held the world’s first independence referendum which passed with 52% of the vote. Nothing about Liberia’s history isn’t fascinating, or in some way horrible, or in some sense unique.

- Malta 1964 The referendum was actually on a new constitution, but part of the constitution was a declaration of independence so I am including it. It was close-ish but the yes campaign won with 54% of the vote. Malta has been doing pretty well since.

- Maryland 1853 What do you mean you’ve never heard of Maryland? Maryland was founded by freed slaves in 1834 as a self-governing American colony along the lines of neighboring Liberia. In 1853 they followed Liberia’s example in holding an independence referendum (which went: Yes 122 No 0) and declaring independence. In 1857 they came under attack from African tribes who objected to their interference with the slave trade. Maryland therefore decided to merge with Liberia for its own protection.

- Montenegro 2006. Montenegro had stayed with Serbia throughout the entirety of the Yugoslavian Civil War, and was the last of the former Yugoslav republics to do so. It finally went its own way in an EU backed referendum in 2006. 55% of the vote was needed for a yes and 55.5% was received, amidst some allegations of vote rigging and bribery. It’s probably too early to say how it is going.

- Norway 1905 Norway and Sweden were in a Swedish-led union from 1814 to 1905 as a consequence of the Napoleonic war. Norway had been growing restless for some time and in 1905 unilaterally declared independence. Sweden refused to accept this unless it was ratified by a referendum. The Norwegian Government therefore put the question to the people with the following wonderfully petulant wording: “do you approve the already completed dissolution of the union?” 368,208 people did, 184 didn’t. Norway then went on to become the richest country in the world and regularly tops quality of life charts; although this probably has more to do with oil than anything else.

- Samoa 1961 New Zealand controlled Samoa under a League of Nations mandate (how retro) from 1918 until 1962. They didn’t do a very good job and had an unfortunate habit of massacring peaceful protesters. By 1962 clamour for independence led to a UN sponsored referendum which was won by yes with 85% backing. New Zealand accepted the result with good grace. There’s probably a good bit of research to be done comparing Samoa and American Samoa to see what the impact of independence has been. I don’t know enough to comment.

Yes votes that were ignored by the occupying power

- Aruba 1977 Aruba is a part of the Netherlands within the Dutch Antilles. In 1977 95% of them voted for independence. From this point on the Dutch played a magnificently Machiavellian game to keep hold of the island. At no point did they refuse to recognise the result but they did stall for time, then they stalled, then they stalled a bit more, then they set up a constitutional committee, then they did some more stalling. Finally in 1983 they agreed to Aruban independence in principle and in 1985 as a matter of law. But independence was not to be granted until 1996! Many people may have thought Alex Salmond’s 18 month timeframe was a little ambitious, but 19 years seems excessive.

Finally, in 1990, once many of the key supporters of independence had died and a pro Dutch Government was in power, the Prime Minister of Aruba asked for the independence programme to be put on hold. This request was immediately granted and in 1995 the referendum result was effectively nullified by a new Dutch law meaning that in future independence would require a vote by two-thirds of the Aruban parliament followed by a new referendum yes result backed by over 50% of all registered voters. In the meantime however Aruba did get to use the leverage to get a good deal more self-government, and in particular was allowed to escape from under the umbrella of the Dutch Antilles.

- Faroe Islands 1946 Yes narrowly won this vote with 50.7% of the vote. Denmark refused to accept the result and responded by dissolving the Faroeise Parliament. In the chaos that followed the pro-independence coalition fell apart, meaning that pro union parties won the subsequent general election. In 1948 Denmark agreed a powerful package of devolution and increased subsidies to prevent a yes vote from winning again. So far this has been successful and there have been no subsequent referendums, although the Faroe Islands still have a powerful independence lobby and are pushing for a fresh referendum at some point in the next couple of years.

- Kosovo 1991 As the rest of Yugoslavia was falling into pieces Kosovo too voted for independence and the yes campaign easily won with 99.8% of the vote on an 87% turnout, despite a widespread boycott among ethnic Serbs. However unlike other members of former Yugoslavia, Kosovo wasn’t able to get away and it remained under Serbian control until the Nato intervention of 1999. As only Albania had recognised the result of their 1991 referendum Kosovo declared independence once again in 2008. This time 108 countries, including much of the west (but not separatism wary Spain), recognised their claim, but the UN and 85 other countries still do not. This makes Kosovo the world’s most half-recognised state.

- Kurdistan 2005 This referendum was held by the Iraqi Kurdish provisional provincial Government at the same time as Iraq’s first elections. Iraq was still under American occupation at the time and even the Kurdish provisional provincial Government acknowledged that a yes vote was unlikely to lead to independence. However they felt that a demonstration of support would prove a useful campaigning point. And the 98.8% mandate for independence has indeed featured in many Kurdish speeches since.

- Nevis 1998 62% of the population of Nevis voted to break away from St Kitts and Nevis but the Government of St Kitts refused to accept the result without a two-thirds majority. The referendum took place as part of a still ongoing series of constitutional crises in the islands, as part of which the federal Governments of St Kitts and the devolved Government of Nevis still frequently refuse to recognise the validity of laws passed by the other authority. They are just about getting on at the moment, but there is still a powerful Nevisian separatism movement, partly fed by fear that St Kitts may once again refuse to recognise the authority of Nevisian legislation, and partly by irritation that currently almost all departure taxes go to St Kitts because they have a bigger port and airport.

- Tokelau 2006 and 2007 Technically this was a referendum on self-governance and not full independence but it is still an example worth talking about. Tokelau voted for self-governance in 2006 with 60% support. However the New Zealand Government said that they would need a two-thirds majority in order to accept the result. They conceded that the result was close enough that a re run was in order. The re run, in 2007, was closer still: the 64.45% who voted yes meaning that Tokelou (which is really small) was just 15 votes shy of self governance. In response Tokelouan politicians asked for a third referendum, this time with a simple 50% majority being all that would be required, but thus far New Zealand hasn’t shown much interest in this idea.

- Western Australia 1933 Western Australia  is very very big and very very empty. As such it isn’t of that much interest to Australian federal politicians due to its lack of votes. Western Australians had therefore felt for some time that the Australian Government had neglected their needs. In the early 1900s the gold rush brought quite considerable prosperity to some in Western Australia, and several key mining magnates and newspaper owners – often of a libertarian bent – started to question why Western Australia should give up so much of its mineral reserves to the federal government in taxes, when it seemed to receive so little in return.

In 1933 the agitation of the secessionist Keith Watson led to an independence referendum which was won by the yes campaign with 66.22% (narrowly passing a self-imposed 2/3rds majority requirement). The victorious State Government took the result to the Australian Parliament who refused to recognise the result. The State Government then sent a delegation to London where a Parliamentary Select Committee was set up to discuss the matter. They ultimately decided to ignore the result but “Commonwealth Grants Commission” to make “Horizontal Fiscal Equalisation” (ie more money for Western Australia) a matter of Australian policy. It has been ever since, and since then the demand for Western Australian secession has been greatly diminished.

Victories for the no campaign

- Bermuda 1995 There had been a general agitation for independence in Bermuda for some time; this especially grew after 1968 when Bermuda was granted a constitution which allowed non landowners to vote for the first time, but independence didn’t naturally follow as it did elsewhere in the Caribbean. It grew further, particularly among the poor black Bermudans, in the 1970s following the assassination of Governor Sir Richard Sharples, the execution of his assassins, and the subsequent rioting. It grew further, particularly among more white and middle class Bermudans, in the 1980s following the success of self-government and the seemingly resultant economic prosperity. This led to the pro-independence Prime Minister Sir John Swan pushing for an independence vote in 2005.

However the yes campaign descended into chaos almost as soon as it had started. For one thing, while Sir John Swan was supportive of independence, most of his party (the centre right UBP) were strongly against independence and the UBP went into at civil war on the issue. This in turn led to the independence campaign stating that a yes vote might not necessarily mean independence right away, leaving many voters wondering why they should bother. To make matters worse the opposition centre-left PLP were in favour of independence but felt that it should be a matter for a general election (in other words if you want independence, do it by voting PLP, not through this referendum). So they scuppered the first referendum bill, voted against the second one, and called for a boycott of the poll itself. And then hurricane Felix hit on polling day lowering turnout in yes areas. So a victory for no (only 26% voted yes) was no surprise.

In the aftermath Sir John Swan resigned and the PLP rose to power. However the PLP rowed back on their previous commitment to independence and instead spoke only of preparing Bermuda for the possibility of independence down the line – in 2001 the new PM Jennifer M. Smith said that Bermuda is at least two parliamentary terms away from being ready for an independence vote, and the matter hasn’t been raised since. In 2002 the British Government gave Bermuda’s residents entitlement to British Citizenship which considerably reduced support for independence, particularly among more affluent white Bermudans.

- Montenegro 1992 As the rest of the Yugoslavian governments were holding independence referendums Montenegro had one too. However unlike Yugoslavia’s other provinces Montenegro had a pro-Serb leadership, and was using the poll as a means to bolster support for remaining with Yugoslavia. The no campaign won with 96% of the vote.

- New Caledonia 1987 The Kanak people are the original inhabitants of the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, but over the last 50 years they have become outnumbered by European and Polynesian settlers. This has caused quite considerable discontent among the Kanak who have waged an, at times violent, separatist struggle. In 1984 the French Parliament, in high-handed fashion, decided to hold a referendum on independence with the aim of undermining the secession movement – thus mistaking a question of protection for minorities for one of the majority will. With most Kanaks boycotting the referendum, the no campaign won with 98% of the vote.

This did not undermine the secession movement even slightly, and six months later they kidnapped 27 French gendarmes in what became known as the Ouvéa cave hostage taking. The French sent a public prosecutor to negotiate with the hostage takers. They took him hostage. They then sent a team of paramilitaries to free the hostages. They took seven of them hostage. Finally the French sent four parachute regiments to assault the caves. The assault went farcically although all the hostages were eventually freed. 2 paras and 19 hostage takers were killed, 12 of them seemingly in cold blood which did nothing to soothe secessionist sensibilities. Nor did things improve 6 months later when the leader of the Kanak Independence movement was assassinated.

However out of this darkest day things did start to improve: peace talks led to a devolution package in 1998, and perhaps more importantly, to attempts to safeguard and support Kanak culture. In 2004 the militantly anti-independence RPCR party fell to the l’Avenir Ensemble party – which is still anti independence but more moderately so and more conciliatory towards Kanak people. A fresh independence vote may even take place later this year.

- Northern Ireland 1973 Not quite an independence referendum but a referendum on if Northern Ireland should stay with the UK or join the Republic, this was a fairly cynical ploy by the Government of Northern Ireland to undermine republicanism. As with New Caledonia it misses the point: the issue is not the will of the majority but respect for the rights of the minority and the need for asymmetric power sharing to protect minorities. All republicans called for a boycott of the poll and the IRA threatened dire consequences for anyone who participated – meaning that he no campaign won with 99% of the vote on a 56% turnout. It is estimated that less than 1% of Catholics voted.

- Puerto Rico 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012 Puerto Rico, You lovely island, Island of tropical breezes. Always the pineapples growing, Always the coffee blossoms blowing, Puerto Rico, You ugly island, Island of tropic diseases. Always the hurricanes blowing, Always the population growing . . . And the money owing, And the babies crying, And the bullets flying…. 

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States – as such it enjoys none of the civic benefits of being part of America, nor any of the freedoms of independence. However supporters of the status quo would suggest that it gains financially out of the arrangement while still enjoying functional self governance. There are three main political parties each corresponding to one of the three main constitutional positions on Puerto Rico.

The politics of the Puerto Rician Independence Party won’t surprise you. They are unrelated to the earlier Puerto Rician Nationalist Party that led an unsucessful armed revolt in 1950 but they did cash in on their support, gaining 20% of the vote in the 1950s. Since then they have been much less successful, and normally get around 3% of the vote.

The New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico pushes for Puerto Rico to become a full state of the United States. It is also vaguely centre right and is more affiliated with the Republican Party (although also has some Democrat affiliation).

The Popular Democratic Party advocates for the status quo. It is also centre left and closely aligned with the Democrats. The NPP and the PDP have been by far the two most successful political parties in Puerto Rico, the PDP have been marginally more successful but at times the NPP have also held commanding super-majorities.

Four status referendums which included an option for independence have been held (along with several that haven’t); oftentimes the motives for these polls haven’t been entirely pure but have had more to do with the party politics of the day.

The first such poll, in 1967, gave voters a choice between Puerto Rico being a Commonwealth (the status quo – which received 60.4% backing), a US state (39%), or gaining independence (0.6%).

It was nearly 30 years before the question would be asked again but it would be asked twice in the 1990s as a result of a significant period of fluidity in Puerto Rician party politics. In 1993 the question was asked again in identical form. This time 48.5% backed the Commonwealth, 46.3% Statehood, and 4.4% independence. This was taken as a victory for the status quo as that was the plurality outcome.

In 1998 the then NPP Government proposed a 5 option referendum which asked voters to choose between “limited self-government”, “free association”, “statehood”, “sovereignty”, and “none of the above”. Arguing that none of the terms were clearly defined the PNP asked people to vote for “none of the above”, and there was a general dissatisfaction as to how the question had been asked and the fact that it had been asked without using a preferential voting system. In the end statehood received 46.6% of the vote, sovereignty 2.6%, free association 0.3%, limited self-government 0.006%, and none of the above 50.5%. The PDP, who came back into power at about the same time, argued that this constituted a vote in favour of the status quo and no action was taken.

Finally in 2012 the question was asked again, this time two questions were asked. The first was “should Puerto Rico continue its current territorial status?” and the second was  “which non-territorial option do you prefer? Statehood, a Sovereign Free Associated State, or independence?” The NPP advocated voting against the status quo and for statehood, the PDP advocated voting for the status quo on the first question and leaving the answer to the second question, which they deemed an “undemocratic trap”, blank. The result was that 54% of the population voted against the status quo. On the second question over 38% of voters did leave ballot blank but their ballots were ignored in the final tally, which came in 61.2% for statehood, 33.3% for a Sovereign Free Associated State and 5.5% for independence.

As this is the first time Puerto Rico has voted for anything other than the staus quo, this is the first time America has been asked to respond to a referendum result. So far Obama has not done so, but he has said he want the matter to be dealt with by a constituent assembly, which he has not yet established. The situation is further muddied by the fact that, at the same time as Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, they elected a passionately anti-statehood PDP governor who has written to Obama urging him to reject the result. There are suggestions that another referendum could be held soon.

- Quebec 1980 and 1995 Do please let me know in the comments if there have been any good historical studies of the ebbing and flowing levels of support for independence in Quebec over the last 50 years and the impacts of various federal measures to support the French language – I have looked in vain. My understanding is that demands for independence grew throughout the 1950s as a result of the Francophone liberal awakening known as the “quiet revolution”. It then took a knock as a result of the Official Languages Act of 1968 (which enshrined the role of French in Canadian governance) and as a result of terrorist actions of the Front delibération du Québec, which culminated in 1970 when they kidnapped the British Trade Envoy and the Vice Premier of Quebec, and strangled the latter with a set of rosary beads. Demand then grew again throughout the 1970s as the Quebec nationalist Parti Québécois rose to power.

This led to the first independence referendum in 1980, it was perhaps premature and The no campaign won with 60% of the vote. However this was not the end but the beginning of a decade of Canadian constitutional turmoil. Quebec refused (and still refuses) to ratify the new Canadian constitution of 1982, and attempts at a compromise were scuppered in 1987 (by Manitoba) and 1992 (by a split in the Liberal Party). The amendment to the languages act in 1988 helped reduce demands for independence somewhat, but they were back with a vengeance in the early 1990s when the Parti Québécois again took power.

In 1994 the Parti Québécois held another independence referendum. It was incredibly dramatic and the 93.5% turnout is the highest ever achieved in a referendum in any place in the world where voting is not compulsory. Early polls suggested as many as 67% of Quebecois would vote no, but momentum rapidly shifted behind the yes campaign and for much of the campaign a yes victory looked certain. But a 6% swing on the day of the vote itself (seemingly a result of last minute nerves) defied the opinion polls and led to a no campaign victory by the slimmest of margins: 50.6% to 49.4%.

In the immediate aftermath of the result the Canadian Government switched to what they called “plan B”, which was to get political scientist Stéphane Dion to write a series of three open letters to the Government of Quebec challenging the legal basis on which the referendum was held and stating that Quebec did not have the power to declare independence. While this display of passive aggressive churlishness (David Cameron was presumably taking notes) predictably backfired and led to a further Parti Québécois electoral victory in 1998, the ongoing constitutional debate did lead to the “Clarity Act” of 2000, which laid down the constitutional process for Quebec to leave Canada if it so chose. Knowing that option was there, and an extended federal love-in during which the special status of Quebec has regularly been asserted, seems to have reduced demands for secession somewhat.

Even more importantly both the Parti Québécois and its federal equivalent the Bloc Québécois have utterly imploded of late, and while the reasons for this have far more to do with governance and very little to do with independence, the fact that there are no longer any standard bearers for independence presents a formidable barrier for any future referendums. At the state level the unionist Liberal Party hold sway while at the Federal level Quebec was absolutely swept at the last election by the left wing NDP (which supports a unified and more federal Canada but respects Quebec’s right to secede if it so chooses) on the back of an incredible speech by the charismatic, but now sadly dead, Jack Layton. The NDP had barely held a single seat in the Province in their history before the last election and so it remains to be seen if they can hold on to any of their gains, although a new Quebecois leader may help.

Edit: I found some more, although they are all a bit unusual:

- Guam 1976 Guamanians (actually what they are called) were asked to choose between an “improved status quo”, the status quo, joining the USA, independence, or none of the above. 58% chose “improved status quo” with 9% preffering the status quo to not be improved, 24% wanting to join the US and 6% wanting independence.

- Northern Marianas Islands 1958, 1961, 1963 and 1968. These rather sad elections always went exactly the same way: voters were presented with a very long shopping list of options including independence and some really fanciful ideas (integration with Japan always gets one vote – I wonder if it was the same person each time and if they stood out). Each time 90%+ vote for integration with Guam, and each time Guam says “no thank you”.

- Saarland 1955 Saarland is an area of Germany on the border with Luxemburg. Its borders have always been disputed. From the end of WW2 to 1957 it was governed by France as a protectorate and even entered its own football team to the 1954 world cup (they didn’t qualify). In 1955 the French organised a referendum on Saar independence under a Council of Europe mandate. The vote split along largely linguistic lines with French speakers backing the yes campaign. The no campaign won with 68% of the vote and this was taken as a mandate for the reunification with Germany that followed.

- Various places in the Dutch Antilles 1993, 2000, 2004, and 2005 After Aruba (see above) left the Dutch Antilles Curaçao held a referendum in 1993 on a number of options including Independence. This didn’t receive much support but the option that overwhelmingly won was for a fundamental restructuring of the Antillies. Various committees set to work on this over the next decade, but as they did so the whole thing started to fall apart at the seams. First Sint Maarten, then Saba, Bonaire, Sint Eustace and finally Curaçao once again held referendums asking the public to choose between the status quo, forming part of the restructured Dutch Antilles, forming some form of union with Holland, or independence. While independence received very few votes (ranging from 14% on Sint Maarten to 0.7% on Saba) in every case the islands voted to leave the Dutch Antilles, and now they are no more – each island is now a territory of the Netherlands in its own right.

- Palau and Marshall Islands 1983 As with the Micronesia election mentioned at the top of the page, voters were asked if they favoured “free association with the USA”, and voted yes. Had they voted no there was a subsequent question on independence, but it didn’t come up. However both Palau and the Marshall Islands evolved full sovereignty from within the free association over the next could of years.

- Ciseki 1980 Ciseki was one of several “Bantustans” – nominally independent states which were in reality reservations for Black residents – that existed within Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Ciseki’s independence was ratified by a referendum – the only time in Apartheid history when black people have ever been allowed to vote – which backed independence by 99% (the alternative was living under Apartheid so that makes sense).

And so ends my tour of interesting independence referendums. Working out what any of this means for Scotland is left as an exercise for the reader.

Firdous e Bareen

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I thought I’d write about Isis since it seems to be pub hour for international political journalism. I should add the caveat that I know very little about Syria and less about Iraq, and so my writings are likely to be uninformed and wide of the mark. But that doesn’t seem to matter these days, it’s pub hour. I’ll fit right in.

I’m not entirely convinced Isis really exist.

I don’t mean that in a conspiracy theory, flat-earth, 911-was-an-inside-job, Prince-Philip-is-a-lizard kind of way. Of course Isis really exist in some sense. But I’m not sure they do all that much existing.

Not In Rivers, But In Drops

I quote Adam Curtis far too often. I am aware that he is not without his flaws, and that quoting his documentaries is only one step above quoting Vice magazine and several staircases below quoting an actual academic (heaven forfend). But I did find his argument in “the Power of Nightmares” about the non-existence of Al Qaeda in any substantive form to be compelling – regardless of how often it is misunderstood by idiots.

Essentially Al Qaeda became a brand, like frosted flakes or knife crime, and it became the case that there was a strong vested interests for the media, the coalition of the willing, and the terrorists themselves to pass off every attack and atrocity, every event and action both successful and unsuccessful, as being by or against Al Qaeda. And to do this they didn’t really need to lie as Al Qaeda is such an amorphous and ill-defined organisation that virtually anyone can be covered by the shadow of the ludicrously large umbrella that the term “Al Qaeda associated” throws up. All that was required is that we not look too closely for deeper truths, for anything approaching insightful analysis. This is something we got pretty good at during the war on terror.

I am no expert on Isis, but my understanding is that they are nowhere near as amorphous as Al Qaeda and that, to return to my original point, they do exist. They are a fairly conventional military force, which will probably end up being the reason they lose. But how big are they really? And how much of what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is really down to Isis and to what extent are they merely the sparks shooting out of a flaming log – highly visible certainly, but tiny and not where the heat is coming from?

1,000 Shards

The Economist estimated Isis’s size as 6,000 or so fighters in Syria, and a similar but smaller number in Iraq. So in all likelihood its army is about the same size as that of Fiji, and probably not as well equipped.

Isis are of course much more active on social media than the Fijian armed forces. They are also much better at using terror as part of a media relations strategy as the War nerd writes in a typically gruesome recent blog. They are also operating in a political vacuum, and 10,000 crazies can do a lot of damage in a political vacuum – for a bit. But the point remains, they are small, and probably too small and too unstable to stick around for long. Probably.

So a more interesting question to ask is whether anything has really changed in Iraq and Syria since Isis came along. In other words how has the situation changed as we’ve climbed this mountain?:


In Iraq, in the areas they control, most certainly things are different. Although “Isis controlled” is a sobriquet which the media is quick to bestow on a town but which the town will often not merit. It is also worth taking something of a historical perspective. Is the situation in Iraq now as fragmented and anarchic as it was in 2006 when the Iraqi insurgency controlled much of the country, Muqtada al-Sadr controlled much of the rest, and there were 30,000 (IBC) to 300,000 (Lancet) dead? I would argue it is not. As for Syria: pre Isis Syria was a catastrophic failed state wracked by civil war with roaming feral gangs of murderers and fundamentalists competing with each other to spill the most blood. Isis have caused about as much damage in Syria as a tornado in a scrapyard.

But what has changed fundamentally since Isis came along, is we now have a narrative we can all get behind. We have a prism through which to see things. Our story, which previously was confusing and required concentration to follow, finally has goodies and baddies, or rather baddies and worsies. And this means that a lot of stuff that was previously considered to complicated to be news is now all over our front pages.

This is what I mean when I say Isis don’t exist: of course they exist, but they are also a narrative device, and the narrative device is growing out of all scale to the tiny group of rather sad 4 Lions wannabes they are named after. The situation in Iraq and Syria is doubtless bad, but the idea that it was substantively better before, or that these bad things weren’t happening previously, is misleading. The major change has been that Isis have given us a language in which to discuss these things.

Some of the things that Isis have done would definitely be news regardless of this narrative device. Taking control of Iraq’s second largest city, however briefly, is massive. Although it did also happen in 2004 and 2008 with less fanfare, and by groups we have now forgotten about.

Similarly the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were such craven acts of barbarity that they would have got headlines at any time and place. Although again it is worth noting that 102 journalists were murdered in Iraq between 2003 and 2013 and 7 in Syria, while at least 36 internationals including 10 Americans have been captured and executed by Iraqi insurgents in that time. This doesn’t detract from the tragedy of Foley and Sotloff’s deaths, but it does place them in context. It is also worth noting that twelve other western journalists have also been kidnapped by Isis and subsequently freed. This  difference in treatment could be because those countries and employers have different attitudes towards ransom, it could be because Isis really hates Americans. But it is possible that the narrative itself, and those who perpetuate it, also share some of the blame for this change of tactic. Could it not also be that the tactics changed  because the new media narrative is becoming increasingly thirsty for blood, blood Isis is all too happy to provide?

In a sense this is the heart of Curtis’ “power of nightmares” thesis – the idea that terrorists, counter-terrorists, and the media end up inadvertently colluding with each other, validating each other, and perpetuating each other,  due to the nature of their symbiotic yet parasitic relationship.

Our more immediate problem is that the Isis story has now taken on a life of its own, and a life to which the facts are increasingly being bent to fit. So non stories like Isis’ hoax attempt to make FGM compulsory (a clear case of picking the wrong Orientalism out of the hat), or the desperate situation on that mountain top that turned out to be not so desperate, get waved on to the front page without much scrutiny. Meanwhile there is no room in this new narrative to point out such inconveniences as the fact that it was only a year ago we were talking about arming Isis’ allies and bombing Isis’ adversaries in the Syrian civil war.

But above all we are being misled as to the novelty of all this; a situation which is utterly horrible, but which has been more or less the status quo for the last several years, is being presented as something new and dangerous and requiring our urgent attention. And I just don’t believe it. Certainly not the new bit, probably not the dangerous bit, and as for urgent attention, urgent attention to what end?

In the Absence of Truth

Utter cliché though it now is, I do love Maslow’s hammer. When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Unfortunately the subset of things which it is constructive to hit with a hammer is actually pretty small, and the vast majority of things outside the set are things that a hammer is just going to make more broken, messier, and more fragmented. Not to mention the fact that when you wave a hammer around you tend to hurt people.

This of course is what’s spurring my worries about all this manipulation of narrative, the sneaking sense that what we are seeing now is the interventionist right’s attempt to rehabilitate the idea that we should always be declaring war on the people we don’t like; to undo some of the damage that was caused to this idea by Iraq, Afghanistan, and last September’s failed attempt to drum up support for an invasion of Syria. Fortunately this time even the neocons seem unsure as to who we should be declaring war on, or how. Granted America is dropping a few bombs, but not even I really mind that – much as I think precision targeting is a myth (the more accurate our weapons have got the more civilians we seem to accidentally kill) if you are going to drop a bomb on anyone (and that seems to be non negotiable) it might as well be on a murderous fascist driving a Humvee through the middle of the desert.

So the lies are troubling but ultimately don’t, in my view, warrant a particularly different response. Imagine a doctor who has just found out that her patient, whom she thought had cancer, is actually the victim of a plot by the international capitalist hegemon to cause their cells to divide uncontrollably. She’d be annoyed but she’s still going to treat them for cancer, because that’s what the symptoms demand.

It is easy to be wise after the event but that Russian proposal for a Syrian ceasefire in June of 2012 is looking pretty good right now. It looked quite good at the time, but America wanted Assad’s removal to be a precondition for talks and Russia thought that was putting the cart before the horse. This was back in the olden days when we cared two hoots what happened to Assad; it all seems rather quaint now. Of course that is not to say Russia’s role in events hasn’t been entirely despicable, but simply to suggest that so has everyone else’s, and Russia just might have been right that one time. Of course it’s a bit late to do anything about that now.

The west could always stop funding and backing Saudi Arabia, who remain the primary source and supporter of fundamentalists, fascists, fanatics and fruit loops in the region. That would, at a stroke, make the world a far better and safer place as well as bringing to an end perhaps the biggest and most dangerous of all foreign policy hypocrisies. That might improve the situation in Iraq and Syria ten years from now.

Until then I can’t really see that there is much more to do than wait it out and accept it is going to be horrible. Depending on your personality you may either take comfort or derive further despair from the fact that the situation isn’t really any worse than it was before you’d heard of Isis, and is still more-or-less better than the situation in the Central African Republic, the DR Congo, or any number of other places that decent people don’t like to think about too much.

Firdous e Bareen is the name of a track by the sludgy post rock band Isis. They most certainly do exist. All the subtitles are named after Isis tracks too. Firdous e Bareen was also the name of a historical and potentially mythical Persian pleasure garden where the Hashshashin (or Assassins, as their name was anglicized) would take new potential recruits. They would drug them and bring them to the gardens while they were asleep and then when they awoke they would imagine that they had died and gone to paradise. Thus they would think their orders were the voice of god, and would know no fear because they would think that they had already died. Which is a great story, although the logic falls apart if you think about it at all.

It is worth noting that the brazen nature of the murders carried out by the Assassins was once one of the most feared things about the middle east; their raids were thought to be among the key destabilizing influences in the region – stirring up Sunni Shia animosity, rattling empires, and altering the path of the crusades. These days the Assassins are mostly remembered as stoners and characters in fairy stories and their branch of Islam, Isma‘ilism, is considered to be one of the most liberal and progressive. It is worth noting that Rita Hayworth was an Ismaili. It is worth noting that for the extra web searches it will bring alone. It is worth noting all this, it isn’t worth reading too much in to it.

Imran Khan, what next?

May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I just spoke on Radio about the elections in Pakistan (if you are interested you should soon be able to find it here soon). One thing I forgot to say so I’m expanding on it here.

Imran Khan actually did pretty well. For a party that has only ever won one seat in its history before and didn’t even compete last time round to get to 30+ odd seats in a first past the post system is pretty impressive. No one sane really expected them to do much btter. To be the official opposition and in power in one of the four provinces is actually better than they had any right to expect. The problem is however that having told everyone that the PTIsunami was going to sweep all before them, how do they now deal with the disappointment  And how does a party that has very shallow roots, and is all about momentum, keep going for the now virtually guaranteed five years until the next election? The PTI could well fall apart. I really hope it doesn’t because if they stick around Pakistani politics could start to get really interesting.

Although most people got the number of seats the PTI won about right I think everyone was a little surprised about how well Khan did in the northwestern KPK (and indeed in Pathan areas general), and how badly he did in Punjab. We should have seem the writing on the wall really: a massive power vacuum in KPK and a rampant PML-N in the Punjab. So now the PTI has two options: they could become an ethnically Pathan party and probably enjoy quite a lengthy and comfortable existence. Or they could keep their eyes on the main prize in the Punjab.

If they do keep their eyes on the Punjab then things could really pan out for them long term. Not only are they second across vast swathes of the Punjab, particularly in urban areas (and the entire Punjab is going to be peri-urban pretty soon), but everyone else has been cleaned right out of the Punjab – especially the PPP who don’t even seem to have much of a base in the south any more. Long term the Punjab could well develop stable two party system with the PTI as one of the two parties.

So the choice seems like a no brainer, but it is one easier to make in theory than in practice. While they may be second placed and well poised the PTI might really struggle to survive five bleak years in the Punjab with no base of MNAs or MPAs, no access to the patronage network that comes with incumbency, and a totally dominant PML. And at the same time they are in power, and have MNAs and MPAs, in ethnically Pathan areas – that has to pull them Pathanwards.

I think there are a couple of clear signals Khan could send now if he’s serious about the Punjab and long-term power. One is to take the role as leader of the official opposition. That will put him right at the centre of national politics for five years. The other is in the choice of seat he takes. In Pakistan you can stand for more than one seat, but if you win more than one you have to choose one and give up the rest. Khan stood for four and won three. He can now take his seat in Peshawar, in Islamabad, or in Miānwāli (a town in the north west of the Punjab which is kind of on the cusp of the Pathan areas of the Punjab and the Punjabi areas). Peshawar is the easy option. I hope he takes Islamabad.

The results

May 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising but Nawaz Sharif won. What was surprising was that he won by an absolute landslide. He’s going to have an absolute majority nationally and a 2/3rds majority in the Punjab. Sindh is likely to have a PPP government and KPK will have some sort of PTI led coalition.

Results are still coming in, but at the moment it is:

  • PML-N 130
  • PTI 33
  • PPP 31
  • MQM 15
  • Islamic parties 8 (JUI 5, JI 3)
  • PML-F 4
  • PPMAP (a Baluchi party) 3
  • NPP (A PPP splinter) 2
  • AML (a PML splinter) 1
  • ANP 1
  • PML-Q 1
  • AJIP (the new party of Musharraf – who were supposed to be boycotting) 1
  • Independents 21 (expect to see some of these join the PML)

Here’s a very rough and ready map. I am grateful to uelect.org.pk as I stole their 2008 map and updated it. Its based on provisional results so some of these will change, and I’ve already spotted at least one that’s wrong:


It is just incredible how well the PML did in Punjab. They destroyed the PML-Q and the PPP only won one seat. The PML didn’t really break out of the Punjab but they didn’t need to – and they did randomly win a seat in Karachi.

The PTI didn’t break through in the urban Punjab but they did get a lot of second places and could be well set next time round. They also cleaned up in Pathan areas.

Also interesting to see mainstream parties taking advantage of new rules to field candidates and win seats in the Tribal Areas.

A bluffers’ guide to the Pakistani General Election

May 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

Pakistan goes to the polls today in one of the largest and most exciting elections in the world. Only the USA, Brazil, and Indonesia have more people voting on a single day – and Brazil might not be able to say that for long (Pakistani census data is notoriously poor and out of date; we do not know if Pakistan is more populous than Brazil – it might be – it does however have fewer registered voters for the moment). Pakistani elections are brilliant, and this one is even more brilliant than usual.

The writing about it over here has been a bit tame though. A lot of the articles in the mainstream western media have been more-or-less the same. And considering what a major event it is there hasn’t even been that much of it. There wasn’t even the traditional Tariq Ali piece in the Guardian bemoaning how the Pakistani people have a thirst for democracy but their leaders let them down (he wrote about Sri Lanka for the LRB instead – I can relate). This piece by Jason Burke is pretty good - you, at least, get the impression that the author stepped out of the air conditioning in the course of writing it.

Of course it doesn’t matter that this is slim fare because Pakistan itself has a truly phenomenal English language media. Indeed if I was being provocative and wanted to link bait I’d say something  Niall Fergusony like:

Pakistan has the freest media in the world

I say Niall Fergusony because it is not true, indeed its frankly a bit ridiculous, but it will bring the punters flocking in to be outraged, shocked, or just curious. Its also a bit Niall Fergusony in that it does contain the gem of an interesting idea, albeit one which is not explored or illuminated in any way. While Pakistan has its problems with censorship and with the murder of journalists, it does have an extraordinary diversity of different news outlets, representing different opinions and sections of society. Of course not everyone is represented evenly, or across all languages, but the Pakistani media is at least a diverse and decent read. The other thing Pakistan has – and here I am using up my one permitted ethnocentric cliché - is that Pakistan has a fairly healthy culture (at least within limits and more so within the English language media) of publicly discussing its faults. Compared to, for example, Sri Lanka the Pakistani press corps are far far more willing to go after a juicy story involving the powerful and their misdeeds.

In fact, if you take away one thing from this post it is that you don’t need to read this post.  Read Pakistani media, read Dawn. Particularly their various brilliant young bloggers and you will find out everything you need. Read this exceptional piece of work by Umair Javed. You don’t need me at all.

And yet strangely we westerners seem to feel the need to have other westerners explain Pakistan to us, as if Pakistanis didn’t speak English (they do – or at lest a few tens of millions of them do), didn’t have access to the higher levels of education necessary to make sense of it all for themselves (they do, they have some of the best universities in Asia) or found that it was all too close to home and sensitive to write about (it isn’t and they do write about it). And that’s how I come in: as a person who knows far far less about Pakistan than most Pakistanis, but is somehow invited to be on a radio panel discussion about it all on Monday. And I feel like a fraud.

And I feel even more like a fraud than normal this time round because the circumstances I alluded to previously mean that I haven’t been following the election with anything like the attention it deserves.

So I’m going to bluff, but by being tongue-in-cheek about it and presenting the piece as a “bluffer’s guide to the elections” you won’t be able to notice. In other words I’ve taken my shortcomings as a researcher and co-opted them as central to the conceit of the article. Booya!

How did we get here?

Actually in the end there is a simple answer to this: because time was up and constitutionally an election had to happen. But the journey wasn’t quite as simple as that.

Pakistan’s latest experiment in military dictatorship ended in 2007-8 with a quasi-popular quasi-judicial uprising known as the “Pakistan lawyers’ movement”. Following that Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of one of the major anti-dictatorship parties (the PPP) became President. However the courts in Pakistan, and many of the judges who had played a key role in ending the dictatorship, became increasingly associated with one of the other major anti-dictatorship parties (the PML-N). As the dictatorship, and the pro-dictatorship parties faded in to history, and the main political rivalry reset as PPP vs PML-N, this developed into open warfare between the courts and the Presidency.

(Of course some would argue that the courts were just doing their job and there was no politics to it, and that might have been true in part, indeed at times they may actually have been correct in law. But there did certainly seem to be a politically motivated element at times.)

It all started to revolve around something called the “Swiss letter”. Asif Ali Zardari is widely believed to be corrupt and to have been corrupt for some time. Around 2003 the Swiss Government started to investigate Zardari in conjunction with some dealings he had with a Swiss company in 1994. They didn’t get anywhere and wrapped up the case. In 2008 Zardari was elected President and so the Pakistani Government wrote to the Swiss Government saying that as President Zardari now enjoys immunity and so they would no longer be cooperating with the case. The Swiss replied that it was all somewhat academic as the case had been wrapped up.

Then in 2009 the Pakistani Government passed a law (well technically they repealed a law) which altered the extent to which immunity can be applied in cases of corruption. The courts and the PML-N felt that this now meant that the Swiss could proceed with the case (The Swiss continued to point out that it was all somewhat academic as the case had been wrapped up). The courts then tried various tactics to force the PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to write a letter to the Swiss asking them to reopen the case.

The actual point, as the Swiss kept saying, was academic, but this argument quickly lost all connection to the point and became about principle (combating corruption on the one hand the supremacy of elected bodies on the other) and even more so about politics. It culminated in April of last year with Gilani being found guilty of contempt of court for not sending such a letter. He was sentenced to a notional minute in prison, to be served (since it was notional) by sitting in the courtroom. However that minute was crucial as ex-felons (even purely notional ones) can’t be MPs and non-MPs can’t be Prime Minister. And so Gilani was toppled.

However meanwhile outside the courthouse there had been a sudden surge in popularity for Imran Khan’s political party: the PTI. The PML-N suddenly realised that forcing early elections (which until then had been the ultimate plan) could well come back and bite them as Khan was at the peak of his popularity. And so at this moment of triumph they backed off and allowed a succession of caretaker Prime Ministers to finish out the term. A compromise letter was finally sent to the Swiss in November to which the Swiss replied, their voices slightly hoarse, that it was all somewhat academic as the case had been wrapped up.

Bluffing dos and don’ts – Do: Tell the almost certainly apocryphal but brilliant story about how, half way through Gilani’s notional minute’s detention in the courtroom, his lawyer stood up and asked if his client could be released early for good behaviour while in prison.

Don’t: Endlessly chirrup “Swiss letter”, “Swiss letter” (unless you want a job in the PML-N). The Swiss letter is frankly no longer that politically relevant.

Dramatis Personae

The army

Its totally wrong to start with the army because the role of the army in the electoral process is hugely overstated. But structurally this is where this fits, and I am all about structure.

Pakistan has had at least four successful military coups, has spent more time under military rule than not, and – as everyone keeps saying – today’s elections mark the first time in history a democratically elected government has seen out its term (although it is a bit of a fudge to mention the military in this context as many of the judicial coups of the early ’90s didn’t really involve the military much). The military hold an enormous amount of sway in Pakistani society and even without any of the rumours you hear about a shadowy “election unit” operating within the ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) it is clear that senior figures within the military hold  significant amounts of political power.

But I do feel the extent to which the army pull the strings in Pakistan is overstated. Firstly the Pakistani army is not a monolith. For simplicity’s sake I’m just going to describe two of the main schools of thought within the army but there are many. The first is the section of the army that thinks of itself in the mould of the Turkish army – the bastions of liberal secular moderation against the barbarism of the masses. Former dictator Pervez Musharraf was very much from this school. They support the secular parties – although they were originally willing to also support Imran Khan because he was a “moderniser”.

The second is the school of thought which grew up around dictator-but-one Zia ul-Haq and his CIA trained operatives in the 1980s. This is hard line anti-India and Islamist – although mostly not to the extent of wanting to scare away the American money that the Pakistani army love so much. They support the exact opposite set of political parties – although they too went through an Imran Khan phase because he was making the right noises (they saw him as being the best of all possible worlds – an Islamist who the west would continue to fund – in other words they saw him as a return to their halcyon days of the 1980s when they got paid to be Islamist).

When the army are in power they are a powerful force for remaining in power – as the durability of the various “kings parties” (political parties developed by military dictators to transition into quasi-civilian rule) show. But out of power the army pulls in different directions and largely against itself. They are a factor to be sure, but they are not the only factor.

The PML-N and Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif is a self made businessman from Lahore (he and his family are actually from Pakistani Kashmir but have developed a Lahori identity). He was Prime Minister twice in the 1990s and, crucially, his brother Shahbaz has been Chief Minister (effectively Governor) of the Punjab – Pakistan’s largest state – for the last five years.

If you ask the Sharif brothers’ many admirers they will tell you they are well liked because they get things done in a good old fashioned way. They get up early in the morning, eat plenty of ghee, and then they shout down telephones until Pakistan is fixed. If you ask the Sharif brothers’ many detractors they will say they are corrupt, and that they have no substance or political principle.

The Sharif brothers have a tight grip over the PML-N (which stands for Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, and decends from a faction of the old PML that split when Nawaz split) but they are more than a one family party. They tend to be the party of “upstart” rich self-made men: industrialists, urbanites, but, above all, of Punjabis. Last time out the PML-N only won 6 of the 124 Parliamentary seats outside of the Punjab; however they won 61 of the 148 seats in the Punjab. Even within the Punjab they are concentrated in the more urban and industrial north. However as this is where most of the population, and seats, are concentrated you can absolutely win a general election this way.

They see themselves as centre right and very mild Islamist (they sell themselves as an even softer and more secular version of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party). But largely the difference between them and the other parties is that their supporters tend to be more urban and to work in manufacturing – rather than any deeper issue of principle.

Every political party in Pakistan has a symbol and a flag. The symbol is so they can be identified on the ballot paper by people with limited literacy, and the flag is for waving. The PML-N’s flag is kind of dull:

Their symbol however has caused no end of fun. Its the tiger:

Now some bright spark decided that this would make for a good campaigning brand. Nawaz Sharif was to be portrayed as the “tiger of the Punjab”. This works on many levels: its the king of the jungle, it has its roots in the subcontinent and Mughal connotations, its fierce and brave, and its a reference to the famous 1970s Punjabi politician Ghulam Mustafa Khar “the Lion of the Punjab”.

Anyway so far the tiger brand seems like a good idea. But they took it too far. Much much too far. For example they made his supporters dress in plush tigerskin onesies:

You thought/hoped I was joking didn’t you? It could be worse though. You could completely cover your entire car in plush tigerstripes:

At least that logically makes sense though. Its not like they covered their entire car in psychedelic crepé paper for no reason and then stuck a half arsed papier maché tiger on the roof:

Still at least they know what a tiger is. Prepare yourself for the worst thing ever:

Where to begin with this monstrosity? Probably with the fact that THAT IS NOT A TIGER THAT IS A LEOPARD. Also the left arm has been done differently and looks shit. Also the whole thing looks shit. What facial expression were they going for? Why is it humping the car?

There’s various montages going around of shit PML tigers. Because it is easy to mock. Easy and fun. Things got slightly more serious (while still remaining farcical) with “tigergate”. Because you knew at some point an actual tiger was going to rock up:

Sadly it seems this tiger was exposed to thirty degree heat for far too long and died. Petitions were launched in the high court on behalf of the tiger. Now it has been suggested that actually the tiger didn’t die and is doing fine. Either way poor tiger – it hasn’t had a fun few weeks. Probably better to just get fat Punjabi men to dress like furries.

Do say:  “It will be interesting to see how well the PML will fare outside their Punjabi heartland”. (It won’t be because they won’t and don’t need to, but it will make you sound like you know what you are talking about.)

Don’t say: “Incidentally the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ Khar’s ex-wife Tehmina Durrani wrote a brutal and engrossing if slightly mad book about Khar’s cruelty to her; Durrani is now married to Shahbaz Sharif and Khar is campaigning for him.” Then make some terrible joke about ligers.

The PTI and Imran Khan

Imran Khan was an absolutely magnificent cricketer. Then for a while he was a dilettante playboy (there’s a wonderful line in his 1991 appearance on Desert Island disks when Sue Lawley says to him, “drinking and womanising aside, you’re a very religious man aren’t you Imran?”). Then even less forgivably he moved to the UK and married a woman with a Jewish surname (that her dad was a fascist actually wasn’t a problem). Then much more forgivably he moved back to Pakistan, set up some really good charities and built and absolutely fantastic cancer hospital. Then he embarked upon a fifteen year long complete joke of a political career in which his party didn’t win a single seat.

Then the PTIsunami happened.

I’ve written about the PTIsunami before but I was probably a bit too dismissive. Nothing I wrote there was really wrong but I missed two fairly important factors. One was that once the bandwagon started to roll it attracted media coverage and Khan does really well in the media. What then became apparent is that there’s a new constituency in Pakistan, of mostly young (Pakistan has a very young population; over 30% of voters in this election are under 30) mostly urban, but in any instance uprooted and unaffiliated voters who are willing and able to vote for whomsoever they please – as opposed to feeling obliged by patronage, village, or family to support a certain candidate. They started to flock to Khan in droves.

The second thing that happened, and I don’t want to overstate this, is that the army started to push Khan. As I discussed before this is because he managed to convince both the secularists and the Islamists that he was one of them. They saw him as the President they had always dreamed of in that he on the one hand expressed the anti-western sentiments they felt, but still on the other was beloved of the west and so would continue to attract arms and investment.

Looking back I honestly think Khan could have won an election if it had taken place 18 months to a year ago. The problem with bandwagons however is that they run out of momentum and this started to happen. Its quite hard to keep a young, unrooted, unorganised and fickle support base going over 18 months without any significant party structure. Also people started to worry that there might not be too much substance behind him: the Islamists started to worry he might actually mean the Secularist stuff, the Secularists started to worry he might actually mean the Islamist stuff, those that joined him on the anti-corruption bandwagon started to worry about what it meant that the army and all these big landlords had suddenly joined, and the army and all the big landlords started to worry that if he won he might not need them and might actually get serious on corruption. Above all the herculean task of winning a first-past-the-post election from a base of zero seats started to hit home.

Khan did make some efforts to build a lasting party and appear like less of a one man band – most notably by bringing in ex PPP heavy hitter Shah Mehmood Qureshi and even occasionally hinting that if the PTI won Qureshi – not Khan – might be the Prime Minister (I still think this might happen if Khan has to go into a coalition he is not happy with as it will allow him to keep his hands clean and paladin-like). He also tried to define what the PTI is about, but here he is still struggling.

People project a lot of views onto Khan that he has never actually expressed. Because he is new, and exciting, and might win, everyone is hoping he shares their views, and this process of projection is made easier by him talking in semi meaningless terms: saying he believes in things like “modernisation” and “communitarianism” which could mean anything, and that he is against corruption (has any politician ever spoken out passionately in favour of corruption?).

Its pretty clear to me that the PTI are mildly Islamist and on the centre-right. Even if that’s not where they want to be I think that’s where their support base will push them. For one thing their support base has a lot of overlap with the PML-N – more than any other party – and so they will be pushed PML-Nwards. Additionally their support is largely based on the media and the media are mostly Islamist centre-right. And finally their support is largely urban and middle class (because those are the unrooted voters) and the urban middle classes are Islamist and centre right. However there are people who will insist until they are blue in the face that Khan’s talk about modernisation and the battle against poverty means that he is a centre-left secularist.

So it looks like Khan had missed his window but then as the election, and media election fever, started up the bandwagon did start rolling again and now all the talk is once again about Khan. And so now we really don’t know. Did he leave it too late? Is it  too much of a task?

We also don’t know what effect him falling off that stage had.

Khan may have thought that in this post Jennifer Lawrence era falling off the stage was now cute. For me it seems a bit more Bob Dole.

Dole, Khan, Lawrence: it could split either way

Mockery aside we should point out that this was a more serious fall than the Dole/Lawrence falls. He fell 4.5 meters off a forked lift truck that was transporting him up onto a raised stage and broke two vertebrae  He was in hospital for a bit but is fine now. Again it could split either way: massive outpouring of sympathy and admiration for his speech from the hospital bed – or that old adage “never elect a guy who falls off a stage”.

The PTI flag is very generic:

The PTI symbol is a cricket bat which has to be cheating because cricket is Pakistan’s national religion. Imagine if the Labour Party in Newcastle changed their symbol to Jackie Milburn (actually that is a really good idea):

Do say: “Khan coordinates his supporters via SMS”. Its true and it also makes his supporters sound like tamagotchis or Beliebers.

Don’t say: “Khan is batting higher than his average”. All cricket metaphors have already been used. Also don’t use cricket metaphors unless you know what you are doing. Khan only averaged 37.69 so batting higher than his average wouldn’t be that impressive. He more than made up for it with ball and armband but, while a solid and occasionally brilliant batsman, it was never his job to get the big runs. Besides he did the jobs that needed doing up and down the order – he didn’t have the long spell at no3/4 you need to pad your average.

The PPP and ???

The Pakistan People’s party are in many ways Pakistan’s most established and successful party. They were founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who, while a very long way from a saint, was a brilliant and charismatic leader who did what no Pakistani politician has really done before or since, which is to build a stable and lasting political party around an ideology: in this case centre-left secularism. Bhutto was judicially murdered in a military coup, thus ensuring his political immortality.

As a result the PPP has become the Bhutto party. They were next led by Bhutto’s daughter Benazir, after she was assassinated her husband Asif Ali Zardari took over. He is widely loathed to the extent that now Benazir’s son Bilawal has taken over.

The problem here is that Bilawal is 24 and to be Prime Minister of Pakistan you have to be 25. Furthermore he seems fairly uninterested in the electoral process and has left Pakistan for Dubai for the duration of the elections. If the PPP do win it is likely that the current Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf will continue, at least for a while.

Meanwhile the eminence grisé of the current PPP, and the man who has been largely heading up the electoral campaign, is former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. He is continuing to do so despite the fact that his son has been kidnapped.

The PPP do actually have quite a bit of strength-in-depth, more so than most of the other parties. The most photogenic is the Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. Articles written by men usually contain some fatuous excuse to include a photo of her:

Although the PPP still go through the motions of being a secular left-wing party (and probably are a bit more secular and left wing than the others) these days they tend to be more about the fact that they have a different support base than the other parties. They are more Sindhi, and thus less Punjabi, and thus more pro-decentralisation. They are more Shia Muslim (although most of the top brass maintain at least a pretence of being Sunni) and thus less pro official Sunnidom. They are more rural and thus less interested in cities. And they are more old money and landed aristocracy and so are against “upstart” capitalists like the Sharifs. They also have a reputation for corruption. At some point the Bhuttos and the Sharifs seemed to be engaged in some wierd kleptocratic race.

One of the other key areas of strength for the PPP (apart from Sindh) is the southern Punjab. This is where Gilani is from and he commands a lot of clout here. They speak a slightly different form of Punjabi called Saraiki and the PPP are proposing the Punjab be split in two and a Saraiki province be established. This is a brilliant political maneuver. Firstly it is wildly popular in the southern Punjab and will bag them a ton of votes. Secondly its essentially a pledge to cut the PML-N’s power base in two. Unsurprisingly the PML-N are not thrilled about this, but its getting to the point where they cannot oppose it or they will be dead in the south.

The PPP seem fairly resigned to the fact that they will take a hit at this election. Indeed they are oddly relaxed about it. In part this is because they know that whatever the PTI do it is going to hurt the PML-N more than them, and indeed they might win a few seats by coming through the middle. In part it is because they don’t face much of a threat in their core areas. And in part it is because it seems fairly likely that there will be a coalition government and the PPP are very good at building coalitions.

I think the PPP’s flag is really cool but I can’t really explain what I like about it:

The PPP’s symbol is the arrow:

Do say: “The PPP might get away with it this time round but the prospects for a predominantly rural party in a rapidly urbanising nation are pretty bleak.” Don’t say it too much though because its my PhD thesis. Get your own

Don’t say: “Where’s Bilawal?”

Other parties

Some of these parties are actually quite important but none will contribute a Prime Minister.

The PML-Q (meaning Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid. Quaid being short for Quaid e Azam, this translates as “father of the nation” ie Jinnah) were built by the Army and Musharraf as a “kings party” in the early 2000s. They were and still are dominated by two Sharif-like brothers: rich industrialists known as the Chaudhurys of Gujrat. History has rather left the PML-Q behind and they have shrunk considerably and will shrink further. However there are at least 15 or 20 seats where PML-Q candidates are so enshrined by local patronage that they will win come what may. They will side with the PPP in a coalition because they hate the PML-N more.

There are a host of other parties with PPP or PML in their name.  This is because both the PPP and the PML have fractured at various points in their history.  Also to be thought of in the same terms are the National People’s Party. Many of these parties have strong family ties with particular seats and so will win one or two seats but no more.

Generally speaking if they have PPP in their name then they hate the PPP and will side with the PML and vice verca. Probably the most significant is the PML-F (the F stands for “functional” which is wonderfully passive aggressive). This is because they are the party of the Pir of Pagaro, a famous dynastic sufi spiritual leader and mediocre cricketer. They always win about five seats in northern Sindh where the following of the Pir is strongest. The Pir himself died last year, but as an immortal saint this is unlikely to have much impact on his electoral performance

The ANP (Awami National Party) are notionally a left wing secular party. More importantly they are a Pathan ethnocentric party. Indeed they largely seem left wing and secular merely because they are mostly competing with religious parties for Pathan votes. They have two areas of strength: the border areas with Afghanistan (what used to be called the NWFP or North West Frontier Province, and is now called KPK or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and large cities – notably Karachi – with a sizable migrant Pathan population. Although notionally the same party there is a fair bit of difference between the ANP in KPK which is largely controlled by the Wali Khan family; and the ANP in Karachi which is largely controlled by Shahi Sayed. The ANP would probably be happiest in a PPP coalition.

The MQM (which now officially stands for Muttahida Qaumi Movement – meaning united national movement – but used to stand for Muhajir Quami Movement meaning united Muhajir movement) claim to be a liberal secular centrist party but in reality are an ethnically based party of the Muhajirs – the name given to Urdu speaking refugees who came from India in 1947. They are exceptionally populists and ethnocentric and the term fascist gets used about them frequently – and with increasing justification. They are also, frankly, gangsters. They are controlled by Altaf Hussein, a London-based godfather who makes Scarface look like a milquetoast. The MQM are big in urban areas of Sindh. As such they are sworn enemies of the PPP locally but might actually work with them nationally –  they’ll work with anyone nationally.

The religious parties don’t actually get much of the vote. This isn’t to say that they aren’t important – more on that later – but they just don’t win seats. This time round there are four main religious parties. The JI (Jamaat Islami – Islamic Party) were the biggest, but are really down on their luck this time round with a lot of their natural support going to the PTI. They also have to deal with the fact that the coalition of tiny religious parties that usually support them have this time formed their own coalitions: the Shia MWM (Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen – united Muslim council) and the Sunni MDM (Mutahida Deeni Mohaz – united religious front). Finally, the JUI (Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – party of the clerics of Islam) are more ethnically based in the Pathan community and so have more concentrated support in the north west and so might do a bit better.

Baluchi politics is a mess. None of the non-Baluchi political parties win more than one or two seats in Balochistan. In a way it doesn’t matter as there aren’t that many seats in Balochistan and whoever wins tends to do a deal with the leading coalition anyway. Generally speaking the parties that win believe in some sort of Baluchi nationalism – but not one strident enough to mean the army has to be sent in again.

Do say: “The MQM will be part of the ruling coalition.” There have been safer bets, but not many.

Don’t say: “Pakistan is in the grip of Islamic extremism! Oh my god! We’re all going to die! No no no no no no no no no no!” (unless you want a job working for Fox)

Here comes a map

This was the result last time.

  • PPP 124
  • PML-N 91
  • PML-Q 54
  • MQM 25
  • ANP 15
  • Islamic Parties 7
  • PML-F 5
  • Various other PPP splinter groups 2 (PPP-S 1 and NPP 1)
  • Balochistan National Party 1
  • Independents 18

This led to a PPP Prime Ministership and Presidency and to a PPP/PML-N/ANP/JUI coalition government. The PML-N later left this coalition while the MQM joined it only to leave some time later still.  The PML-Q have been informal supporters of the coalition for some time. The PML-N took office in the Punjab, the PPP in Sindh, the ANP in the NWFP (which they renamed KPK) and Balochistan remained a mess.

The provinces here are slightly separated to distinguish them. The top white bits are Pakistani Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. They are – no kidding – administered as colonies from Islamabad and don’t get to vote. India occupies half of it anyway.

The top long thin one which starts with the green is KPK. It is largely Pashtun. This is likely to be a battle between the secular Pashtun ANP and the religious Pashtun JUI although the fact that both of them are pretty weak right now means other parties might try to muscle in: Imran Khan is ethnically Pashtun so you’d think the PTI could pick up some seats here.

The one on the right is the Punjab. The blue is the urban north which is going to be the main battleground between Khan’s PTI and Nawaz’s PML-N. As you go south it gets more rural and the PPP start to come into it. You also start to get the big rural seats which will go whichever way the local landlord picks (most of them are currently PML-Q).

The sliver of yellow on the left is the FATA or Federally Administered Tribal Areas. They are governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulations of 1848 under which MPs are not elected but simply selected by tribal elders. Do not get me started on this. EDIT: apparently this is no longer the case. About bloody time.

The massive thing to the left is Baluchistan. As I said above it is a bit mad, its basically Pakistan’s wild west. Its fascinating but you’d need someone more knowledgeable than me to explain it.

The bottom is Sindh. The rural areas vote PPP, the urban areas split on ethnic lines: Sindhis vote PPP, Pathans vote ANP, Muhajirs vote MQM. This is where the elections get very violent. Karachi in particular used to have a huge PPP stronghold in Layari town and huge ANP strongholds around Banaras colony and Landhi. Cue running gun battles between PPP, ANP and MQM gunmen and hundreds upon hundreds dead. I think its fair to say the MQM won, and now the whole city votes MQM. At risk of throwing my credibility away completely, the Vice guide to Karachi is actually very good.

Do say: *Khyber Pa*khtun*khwa while clearing your throat at the asterisk marks

Don’t say: “North West Frontier Province” The NWFP has gone to the big maproom in the sky with Madras and Bombay.

How elections are fought

I’m a lazy man, so here is how I described it in my paper:

“Mohammad Waseem’s (1994) study of the 1993 elections describes the Pakistani electoral landscape primarily in terms of “big men” or brokers who operate large banks of “hundreds or thousands” of votes. In the crudest examples they gain control over this number of voters through bribes, murders and intimidation. In more sophisticated strategies, they gain control as a quid-pro-quo for providing services of access-to, and mediation-with, the state: patronage. They trade these vote banks with the political parties in exchange for, in some instances, money and more generally local public goods which further enhance their reputation and access. There is an economy of patronage in which public goods are the primary currency…. party identification is partly, and increasingly, based on ideology and service delivery; but the main driver is patronage, which in turn is linked to development spending.”

That still largely holds true. However it is a fairly rural model and it is clear that while parties try to do the same thing in the cities it doesn’t work as well. The vote banks are more fragmented and the voters more independent minded. This is why Pakistani politicians hate working urban constituencies. They know they have to (for show if nothing else), but they find it difficult, expensive, and hard work.

Moreover there are some parties that don’t primarily operate this way: “modern parties” if you will, that primarily try to win elections by using campaigning and the media to get their message across. The religious parties, for all their many other flaws, have done this for some time, as have the MQM. They have now been joined by the PTI.

However most parties mainstream aren’t that good at it. They lack “street power”. And so this is where the religious parties come in. Again I’m going to plagarise myself here. This is from an unpublished field report:

“Mainstream political parties feel they cannot motivate people in the cities as they lack the networks to do so. This is because while the networks associated with a particular candidate will normally suffice in a rural area, they will not run as deep, or be extensive enough, in urban areas. Ideological organisations, on the other hand (such as religious or ethnic political parties) concentrate their resources in the cities as a) this is the most efficient way to reach the most people, b) this is where the media, their most effective tool, has the most impact, and c) this is where universities are based (the ban on political parties organising at Universities means that Universities have become areas of strength for religious and other non-party-political ideological groups).

“So the cities are areas of relative weakness for the mainstream political parties and areas of relative strength for ideological groups without a formal role in mainstream politics. And the mainstream parties seem to have limited interest in challenging this. They make very limited attempts to mobilise in the cities, and they leave the demonstrations, postering, corner meetings, and other manifestations of modern politics almost entirely to these latter groups. But at the same time these latter groups, including the religious political parties, are not able to project power at a national level – both because they lack the necessary patronage and high level networks to win a national election and also because, all things considered, their message isn’t actually that popular

“And so it appears that informal, local level, agreements are reached between members of the former groups and the latter. In a piece for Dawn Umair Javed describes this exchange as “electoral support for a blind eye”.  The religious parties lend the mainstream parties street power at election time and in return they get patronage. This manifests in the turning of a blind eye to illegality by the foot soldiers of the religious parties, and arguably by the religious parties themselves, and also arguably in the disproportionate influence religious parties have over policy.

“These deals seem to be done on a constituency-by-constituency or district-by-district level. So there are constituencies where the JI support the PPP and the JuD the PML-N, and there are constituencies where the reverse is true. Religious parties fielding candidates themselves does not seem to prejudice these arrangements, as even where they stand it seems they rarely make an attempt to win.”

Do say: Talk about the transgender candidates. Its really interesting.

Don’t say: Any of this stuff above. People’s eyes will glaze over.

Counting the vote

Polls are closing roundabout now and we’ll start to get media reports of who has won what in dribs and drabs. Formal results will be announced within 14 days. These will take the form of first-past-the-post constituency results to both the National Assembly and to the Provincial Assemblies of the four provinces. Only Muslims can vote but there is a separate election for non-Muslims to elect 10 minority seats. Its very hard to find anything out about this election but I understand it is done by dividing Pakistan up into 10 first-past-the-post electorates. Ahmedi Muslims are counted as non Muslims which they are very angry about.

EDIT: this has now changed and minorities can now vote and stand for election in the general seats. In addition minorities still have ten reserved seats which now work the same way as female reserved seats. You still have to declare your religion to vote though which many Ahmedi Muslims refuse to do because of the way Muslim is defined.

In the meantime candidates who have won more than one seat (this happens quite often) have 60 days to decide which seat they would like to keep and by-elections are then held in the ones they give up.

Within three days of the official result independent candidates have to either join a political party or pledge to remain independent. You see this happen quite a lot in seats dominated by feudal landlords. They will put up an independent candidate who will win and then join whichever party forms the Government.

About six days after official results are declared reserve seats for 60 women are allocated among the political parties in direct proportion to the number of seats the parties have already won.

Parties in Parliament then go about trying to agree on a Prime Minister and, almost as importantly, parties in the Provincial assemblies then go about trying to agree on a new Chief Minister for each province.

Finally the President of Pakistan will be elected in September by an electoral collage made up of Parliament, the Provincial assemblies, and the Senate (the Senate is indirectly elected by the Provincial assemblies – by Single Transferable vote eccentrically enough – half being elected every three years. We’re not due until 2015 so it will be this current Senate that helps pick the President).

Does winning the Presidency matter? Its hard to say. It used to be a symbolic role, then it became quite powerful, now it is fading and becoming more symbolic again – but it does in a large part depend on the personalities involved.

Do say: “The disenfranchisement of the Ahmedi community is a disgrace”.

Don’t say: “As is the disenfranchisement of the FATA, the Northern Areas, and minorities in general”. Its true but people don’t want to hear it. In fact do say it. It is true.

Who will win?

My guess? PML-N led minority coalition. PTI will get about 40 seats. But this is a much better prediction.

Results are coming in here.

Orientalism: or “how to sound authentic”

May 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

My summary of the Pakistani General Election is coming. But in the course of writing it I got wracked with liberal guilt about Orientalism and so had to write a lengthy aside. That totally ruined the flow of the piece so I’ve hived it off into a seperate piece. Guilt assuaged, guide not ruined. Here it is:


Edward Said wrote a brilliant and very important book once. It is however exceptionally long and boring. To be honest with you I only finished it because I was stuck in an airport for 36 hours with it. For this reason it is one of the most misunderstood and misquoted books of all time.  Orientalism was a scathing critique of imperialist attitudes within academia, the othering by the west of the rest of the world, and the use of ethnocentric cliché. It did not, however, say:

  • It is totally wrong for anyone to talk about, think about, or even visit any country apart from their own.
  • Cultural anthropology is evil, and sociology and political science are only ok if you do it in a really boring way which means that you interact with your subject matter as little as possible.
  • You can be as glib, othering, ethnocentric, and even downright racist about your subject matter as you like provided you quote the natives saying it about themselves.

But you wouldn’t know it to read some of the guff we’ve been subjected to since.

The problem is that Orientalism sent a generation of guilt wracked liberal lefty types madly spinning round in circles falling over themselves not to be orientalist. And now we are all scared of our own shadows. The result is some really weird conventions have cropped up. Firstly, because everyone loves a good shortcut, we still tend to use ethnocentric chiché – we just try to limit ourselves to one per article. Secondly we all feel the need to talk endlessly about Orientalism, as though name checking it will in some way appease it (ahem). Thirdly, and most tediously, we all try this incredibly grating jokesy self-deprecating style, the idea being that by being only semi-serious we can limit the offence (critics: please accept this own goal with my compliments).

Of course the rest of the world has largely ignored this small section of academia tying itself in knots over nothing. However somewhere along the line some people did pick up on the idea that when writing about places like Pakistan it is now important to sound authentic. I don’t need to write a bluffers’ guide to this because someone already has and it is brilliant. But here’s two extra tips:

1 – Speak Urdu

For historical reasons Urdu is the national language of Pakistan despite not being native to that geography. Even sixty years later nobody really speaks Urdu, most people speak a fused lect of Urdu, English, and various local languages. You can do this too – its just that for you the ratios will be a bit different: 1%-99%-0% say. Just drop “accha”, and “tik hai?” into your sentences at random points. “Accha” and “tik hai?” are great phrases from this point of view in that both can be added to any sentance at any point without substantively changing the meaning.

Even more crucially, the kh at the front of “Khan” and indeed almost any kh is not pronounced as kh in Urdu. It is the Urdu letter خ and it is pronounced as something in between the English letter x and the noise you make when you clear you throat. Pronounce Imran Khan this way and immediately gain +100 Pakistan points. Try to ignore the fact that this is the linguistic equivalent of putting on the “‘Allo ‘Allo” accent every time you say François Hollande.

2 – Tell an anecdote about a time you were in peril.

Preferably from Islamists.


I took this photo. These blokes are from an organisation called Jamaat-ud-Dawa which is the political wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba who were responsible for the Mumbai attacks. They are between me and my hotel and shortly after this photo was taken I was taken in to protective custody. This is probably the biggest amount of danger I have ever been in in Pakistan and to be honest with you I was perfectly safe.

Pakistan has violent extremists in the way the sea has sharks. The sea does have sharks but the sea is absolutely massive and most of it doesn’t have sharks. Moreover we have a fairly good idea where the majority of the sharks live and that still gives us a fair few billion cubic gallons of water which are more-or-less shark free. Even”shark infested” bits of the sea are reasonably safe provided you are a little bit sensible. Of course anyone can get eaten by a shark at any point if the sharks are hungry, or in a bad mood, but realistically it is probably safe to swim in most of the ocean.

To be honest I’m going to leave it there because I don’t find terrorism or extremism that interesting. It sells copy though, which is a shame because it gives people a warped idea of what Pakistan is about. I’d much rather tell my anecdote about the fake cop whose fake badge had a rabbit on it instead of a star, or the washing machine that tried to kill me, or the two servants that I used to take for walks, or the drunk TV guys who used to tell me highly improbable stories about their sexual exploits in Wolverhampton, or the time I accidentally opened a school, or the time I accidentally ended up on Pakistani TV, or the time a security guard yelled at me about Salma Hayek, or the time I played Swiss German card games in Lahore, or the time I went drink driving with a police chief, or the time I witnessed a goat sacrifice, or the time I accidentally walked to Afghanistan, or the time I got wasted with a 97 year old whose grandfather massacred half a British battalion, or the time I found a bunker that had “secret helicopter” in massive yellow writing on it, or the time I walked across this bridge:



Argonauts of the incredibly specific: anthropological field notes on the Liberal Democrat animal

May 3, 2013 § 25 Comments


In September of 1946, just days after the formal Japanese surrender, Noboru Hayama – a twenty year old inventor – hung a sign on the door of his home in the Tokyo suburbs bearing the single word “Riso-sha”: the Japanese word for “ideal”. Thus a company was born, and over the years Hayama’s genius would take it to global prominence. In 1954 he developed Japan’s first emulsion ink. In 1977 he invented a screen printing system which was small enough to fit in the home. It was so popular that at one stage a third of Japanese households owned one. In 1984 he invented the world’s first fully automated stencil duplicator: the Risograph 007 or RG. For small organisations mass duplication of low quality black-and-white leaflets in-house became cost effective for the first time. The machines were relatively small, meaning they could fit in an office or garage and, if necessary, be hidden: the “samizdat”, the underground network of newspapers and pamphlets which permeated the Soviet Union, and thrived after Glasnorst, made full use of this last feature to ramp up their operations during the late ‘80s.

In 1989 Riso launched the European version: the RC; the RA and GR series followed in 1993 and 1994. The cold process and lack of moving parts meant these machines were robust and easy to maintain – many are still working nearly twenty years later. The RN and RP series, which followed in 2000, massively improved print quality but were fussier, more temperamental, machines. At the same time the V series allowed two colours to be printed at the same time – allowing for much more sophisticated graphic design. Finally in 2004 the RZ series brought in phenomenal speeds and almost laserjet quality printing – but at a price of being so fiddly that I doubt many will show the resilience of the old RAs. Noboru Hayama, meanwhile, lived to the ripe old age of 87. He died of a heart attack last March.

Fact: most normal people don’t know what a Riso is. Most Liberal Democrats have a thorough understanding of how to maintain and repair an RA4200.


A political machine

Stand back everybody. Avert your eyes. There will be shards. I am about to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut: politicians live in bubbles. Those bubbles cause them to have a distorted view of the world.

I imagine you are not reeling in shock. But this is one of those ideas which tends to be blithely accepted without any exploration of the consequences of the idea. So here is such an exploration. But first I am going to smash that nut, by giving the Liberal Democrats a good hard Othering. By talking about them using some of the language and techniques of anthropology, as one would a long lost tribe, I’m hoping to show just how odd the Liberal Democrats are, and by extension just how odd the lived experience of politics in the UK really is. And yes, I am aware that this is a self-indulgent piece – that is somewhat the point. Indeed if anyone publishes a more self-indulgent piece this year I will be sorely disappointed. I should also point out that I am not a trained anthropologist, although I have been known to dabble, and this is largely a bit of fun – if you are reading a blog for peer-reviewed, citable, academia then you should seek help. Stick around though, I quote Napoleon later.

All the standard anthropological caveats apply. I am writing about the Lib Dems because that is what I know, but it is likely that much of what follows will also apply to the other major parties (minor parties are weird). I also don’t know how different things are in other countries, but this piece from Australia, suggests not very. I always thought American elections were very very different until I read the description of the fridge on page 21 of Primary Colours, and realised they were exactly the same. To what extent that is the case would require further research to establish. Fund me.

The caste system

The Liberal Democrats operate a rigid caste system. The principle major castes are: MP, Councillor, Researcher, Campaigner, Caseworker and Volunteer. These can be further grouped into two caste groupings: the professionals (Researcher, Campaigner, and Caseworker) and the amateurs (MP, Councillor, and Volunteer). The professionals view the amateurs with derision tinged with suspicion.

Caste is largely a matter of social perception and one can usually successfully transfer caste allegiance by hanging around with people from a different caste for a bit. However, in the meantime, you will be viewed through the prism of your caste, and it will be a major factor in determining the opportunities available to you.

Volunteers occupy a position in the Liberal Democrats not unlike that of the “Hijira”, or eunuchs, of South Asia. On the one hand they are considered the lowest of the low: stupid, surly, and fit only for the most basic manual work. On the other they possess a certain sort of spiritual power which is coveted and must be appeased at all times.  Thus contempt is concealed, and even the mightiest minister in the land must make a show of doing the occasional paper round to demonstrate fealty. There is a conceit that all Liberal Democrats start off as volunteers. It isn’t true, but those that didn’t fake it as best they can.

Councillors are essentially paid volunteers. We also let them run municipal services. Let’s think about that for a moment: imagining you were conducting a Rawlsian experiment to establish the ideal form of Government. You might come to the conclusion that a system of justice is vital to contain the worst excesses of rational self-interest. You might come to the conclusion that some sort of basic social safety net is required to maximize the minimum potential regret or loss of wellbeing. You would be highly unlikely to determine that it would probably be best if we put the person who delivers the most newspapers in charge of town planning.


This is honestly what you get if you do a google image search for councillor. The guy in the red blazer looks dynamic

The problem is that the role of councillor falls between two stools: on the one hand they deal with very important issues, on the other hand (as local devolution in the UK is half-hearted at best) they often have limited control of those issues. On the one hand the money (c.£10k for a borough councillor) is pretty good for a job with virtually no requirements other than that you be liked by your local party, on the other hand the money isn’t really good enough to do a proper job. And so it tends to be more of a chore than an honour. It’s a bit like being an MP (see below) but with no up-side.

MPs (in which I include all the various mutations: MEPs, AMs, GLAMs etc…) are of course the only type of politician that matter to the wider world. It is therefore interesting to see how irrelevant and peripheral to proceedings they often seem to be. Political machines exist to serve MPs, but much as most cooks feel the whole process of cooking would be a damn sight easier if it wasn’t for the bloody customers, so most people in politics seemingly would rather MPs were not involved at all. In fact at some point I want to write a sitcom set in an MP’s office, where the MP dies and nobody notices. Perhaps it is because there aren’t very many of them, and because they spend most of their time in Westminster (nothing that happens in Westminster matters to anyone except other people who work in Westminster – unless it gets on the telly).

If you want to be an MP it helps to be rich, charismatic, likeable, hard-working, lucky, good with the media, have a good back story, have a solid track record with the party, and good at campaigning. But you don’t need to be any of these things. The only thing you absolutely need is ridiculous, and I mean absolutely ridiculous, levels of self-belief. This is because no rational human being would ever want to do it. If you want to be an MP you must give up all semblance of a normal life for years, often decades, at a time. You must be unemployed, or have a very patient employer and a meaningless job, for about a year before the election. You must surrender all meaningful contact with friends and family. In the months before an election you must spend around twenty hours a day shaking hands, smiling, and making token purchases. And if you are not driven completely insane by this you also have to come to terms with the fact that there is a very very good chance that you are going to lose, that it will all have been for nothing, and that you have to wait four more years and then have another go – only it will be harder the next time because now you are tagged as a loser. If you finally ever make it to Parliament, you will realise the influence you wield is minimal, and considerably less than that you would have if you had devoted that amount of energy and dedication in almost any other direction.

No sane human being would do this. And yet from among the insane we have to choose the leadership of the nation. They tend to be those that are so utterly captured by the political process that they cannot imagine a life outside of politics, and those who genuinely believe that one day they will be Prime Minister. The scary thing is that at any given time one of them is correct.

Those then are the amateur castes. The professional castes are much more interesting. While the amateur castes are fairly strictly hierarchical, the professionals have a cyclical hierarchy much like the Varnas of India. The Brahmins are the researchers, the most spiritually pure. The Kshatriyas are the campaigners, who wield absolute power in times of war. The Vaishyas are the caseworkers. They do all the actual work, and so wield economic power.

Researchers work in Parliament which means they get to drink subsidised beer but have to wear suits to work. They all watch the West Wing and the Thick of It and tell their friends that their lives are like that. If their MP is a) influential and b) trusts them, then they are not entirely incorrect – but they work for the Liberal Democrats so that never happens. “Research” is an archaic word meaning “to google” and so most researchers don’t really do much research: they are part PA, part Press Officer, and part Events Organiser. A large part of each researcher’s day is spent asking “what’s our policy on x”? Another large part of each researcher’s day is spent making up a policy on y (another researcher having asked you) based upon something you remember your MP having said about it in 2003. Researchers work around 60 hours a week, this is in part so they can look suitably exhausted when networking over a post work pint. Being peppy is bad form.


Two parliamentary researchers discuss if potholes are a borough or county responsibility

Campaigners have a strict uniform which consists of looking as scruffy as possible. In part this is to signify their indispensability (much as the U boat commanders of the Kriegsmarine did); in part this is because they spend half their life fixing broken printers. Campaigners are responsible for the electoral success of the party and, as such, look down upon anyone (such as researchers and candidates) who aren’t. Campaigners also have nothing to do with policy and, as such, are looked down upon by anyone (such as researchers and candidates) who do. About half a campaigner’s job is logistical management – the basic strategy being to batter your electoral opponent into submission by sheer volume of literature. Thus the best campaigners are those that do not make the better the enemy of the good, and always prioritise quantity over quantity. The other half of a campaigner’s job is graphic design. For this reason most campaigners are terrible graphic designers. Campaigners work around 90 hours a week and there is a machismo culture around who can do the longest hours. Unsurprisingly Campaigners live on a diet of nicotine, alcohol, coffee, and anything with lots of sugar in it. Perhaps surprisingly Campaigners have not yet discovered crystal meth.

Caseworkers are the closest approximation politicians have to real human beings. Obviously everybody looks down on them for not being “political”. Caseworkers tend to work 9-5 and have friends outside of politics. They also deal with real problems that happen in the real world. Unsurprisingly therefore caseworkers tend to be the most diverse and broadly representative political caste: there are caseworkers of all ages, races, genders and shudder classes. It always amuses me that party’s plans to increase diversity seem to consist, not of turning politics into something a sane human being might want to do, but in convincing working-class BME women that they too should make the kind of mad irrational ego-driven choices that white twentysomething childless middle-class men do.


Liberal Democrats participate in tribal bonding rituals known as conferences. As with most such kinship occasions, complete with ritual chanting, conferences used to have a function, but that function has now been subsumed into symbolism designed to strengthen a sense of community, and to more clearly divide into Same and Other. As with most such kinship occasions, alcohol and sexual promiscuity are used to strengthen the bonds.


“Marty, Marty, look! A maritime courtship ritual!”

Liberal Democrats also have formative rituals, or initiation ceremonies, known as “by elections” to establish identification with the group. The by election ritual is much like the circumcision ritual of the Xhosa tribe:

“During the time of the initiation, the young men live in special huts, secluded from the rest of the tribe and especially from any females. They undergo training and endurance tests, which require great discipline. All aspects of the initiation are kept very secret.”


A young Simon Hughes and aides working the Bermondsey by-election

Ceremony and hierarchy

Liberal Democrats use ceremonies to delineate hierarchy. Perhaps the most involved of this is referred to as “leafleting”. The leafleting will be led by the campaigner who will have put on their scruffiest outfit for the occasion. The campaigner will hold court in an office, carpark, or abandoned warehouse. Members of the other castes will come and demonstrate fealty by taking bundles of leaflets from them and distributing them among the townsfolk. In the case of the researcher this fealty will be guarded, often accompanied by a pointed remark about the spelling in the leaflet – a sign that the higher caste the campaigner enjoys at this moment is temporal, and it will all change when Parliament is back in session. In the case of the MP the statement is tokenistic, and the bundle of leaflets small, to indicate that – while the MP must participate in the ritual to validate their supposed volunteer roots – they do actually have more important things to do. The volunteers and the councillors tend to be the most devout believers in the ritual, and will quiz the campaigner on every aspect of the leaflet’s contents. This is also part of the ritual, as is the campaigner patiently pretending to listen whilst ignoring everything that is said. The campaigner wrote the leaflet at 4am while tweaking and is fully aware that it contains seven spelling mistakes and a potentially serious libel issue in the third article. It also has GY!BE inserted into the legal smallprint as part of a bet with the Labour agent. The campaigner knows that none of this matters as the vast majority of residents will only look at the leaflet for an average of three seconds between doorstep and bin, and so the headline is literally the only thing that matters. But the campaigner also knows that the good will of the councillors and volunteers, and their belief in the ritual, is required to deliver that headline.


Some things have to be experienced before they can be truly understood. The Lib Dems used to have a computer programme called EARS.


The foundation myth of the modern Liberal Democrats is Brent East. Broadly speaking this myth is a Titanomachy and the story is pretty cool. There are other similar campfire stories Liberal Democrats tell each other, and this is a common feature of most competitive industries. It serves to delineate kin (there are two types of people in the world: those for whom the phrase Littleborough and Saddleworth holds no meaning whatsoever, and Liberal Democrats), to delineate seniority (“you weren’t there man, you weren’t there”) and to give youngsters something to aspire to. This is normal. What is also normal is the stultifying effect this has on innovation. However as an organisation which has an overdependence on volunteers, and thus on war stories, it is possible that political parties are especially prone to gerontocracy and stagnation. This may explain why political parties so rarely innovate: one could safely and securely make donations online in 1994, but no political party attempted it in a coordinated way until the Obama 2008 campaign.

This has had a particular effect on the Liberal Democrats because the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be. Duverger’s law states that First Past the Post nations should only have two major parties. The only counterexamples in the modern era are highly-federal nations (such as Canada, India, Pakistan, the Philippines) which have only two main parties in any given area but consequentially more than that nationally; and the UK. The Lib Dems are a historical anomaly, and the only reason they have survived is because, back in the day, the Lib Dems were seriously innovative. In some ways the 1980s Lib Dems were decades ahead of their time. The problem is that the 1980s were decades ago, and the Lib Dems are still campaigning much as they did back then. As Napoleon said:

One must change one’s tactics every 10 years if one wishes to maintain one’s superiority, A man has his day in war as in other things, I myself shall be good for it another 6 years after which even I shall have to stop.”

Of course nobody else has innovated either, but they don’t have to because they are not historical anomalies. A venture capitalist once explained the situation to me like this:

“Seventeen years ago the Lib Dems were really smug about the fact that they were twenty years ahead of everybody else. Now they are just as smug about the fact that they are three years ahead of everybody else. When that happens in my line of work people get fired.”

I think this graph, of how many votes £1 buys you over the last four elections, tells its own story:

Anyway that has been something of a digression. But I got to make a graph, quote the French, and say “a venture capitalist once explained the situation to me” so I’m happy.

Symbolism and language

Do you know what a Blue Letter is? Do you think Focus is a noun? What does the term Shuttleworth mean to you? Have you met Erlend? The Liberal Democrats have their own language.

Back to the point

Politics feels very very different when you are part of it. Politics should be simply a matter of making decisions about public policy but it can’t be because human beings are not built that way. Thus politics becomes a way of life, and once it is a lifestyle there is a disconnect between those who live the life and those who don’t. Politics becomes your identity, and your political party becomes your tribe.

And herein lies one of the biggest problems in politics. Because choosing between political parties should be a straightforward matter of selecting the policy platform that most closely aligns with your own. But it isn’t; it’s about group identity. And to a certain extent it has to be; because this is a representative democracy not a direct democracy, and we are picking people we trust to make decisions down the line. That is why it still matters that the Tories destroyed the social contract, and that Labour committed war crimes, and that the Lib Dems lied about tuition fees: because the people that did those things are still in charge, and their past behaviour is the best guide we have to their future actions. But we take it too far, and that is why the British are bad at coalition governments. We are too tribal, and we only see politics in terms of tribes, not policies, and so negotiating around a common platform is an exercise in futility. Far worse though is that the political parties themselves have this attitude. While most coalitions around the world understand that coalition government is a mixture of compromise, bluster, grandstanding, bluffing, red lines, and – occasionally – withdrawing, the British treat suggesting that one might actually walk away from a coalition at some point as in some way unsportsmanlike. And so the British don’t have true coalition government so much as a series of informal mergers. The tribalism of British politics meant that a coalition Government was always going to be a tough sell to the British public; what is only now becoming apparent is that the tribalism of British politics means that coalition governments in the UK are not true fluid, dynamic, coalitions such as those enjoyed by the rest of the world.

By the way, that last paragraph had around 90% of its sentences starting with prepositions: take that grammar Nazis.

A further difficulty then is that one cannot make political decisions for solely political reasons. What most, but not all, models of political behaviour miss is the role of interpersonal relationships in political decision making, and in particular the role of group loyalty. This is exacerbated by the fact most people in political parties never ever talk about politics: it seems somehow self-indulgent and redundant. I have managed campaigns for candidates at very high levels where I can honestly tell you I haven’t the faintest clue what my candidate’s political beliefs were. Because once they are playing for your team it doesn’t matter, your role is to help them win. This can be seen most clearly when it comes to defections. When you defect from a political party you do not merely determine that one group of political actors have a set of beliefs and positions that more closely match your own (something which could happen to the inquisitive mind several times in a week), instead you make a conscious decision to abandon a lifestyle, to sever friendships (maybe not entirely, but to significantly alter the nature of the friendship), and to step outside of the kinship group that you have been up until this point entirely immersed in. Small wonder then that the majority of defectors are either people of real principle juggling with terrible weights on their conscience, or else really quite odd people. Furthermore much like Yes Minister’s hypothetical invading Russians, political parties tend to betray you via a thousand tiny cuts, they are rarely gracious enough to provide one with a clear cut “point of departure”. Defection is not a decision one takes lightly.

And herein lies the second problem with political kinship. People who are part of political parties are too loyal. Politics is fairly thankless; the material rewards are – comparing like for like – shit, and it is frankly quicker and easier to accumulate power outside of formal political processes. One therefore shouldn’t really do it for any other reason than ideology. But the kinship of politics becomes a trap, and so politicians do what every person in every walk of life does when they find themselves in this situation: they tell themselves little lies to make it all ok. This is why Liberal Democrats now send each other painfully thin infographics which crow over their “achievements”, and pretend that they had ever heard of the “pupil premium”. They have become, in the words of my hilarious pun title, the Argonauts of the incredibly specific. And by being too loyal, they are too forgiving of the coalition, just as by being too tribal others are too irrational about the coalition. And all of us are trapped by a discourse which sees these things as mattering, whereas actually politics was never this simple, and the political party one identifies with is almost the least important of the many ways one can influence political and, possibly more importantly civil, society.

So I suppose this is my letter of resignation from the Liberal Democrats. It is not really. I’ve read a fair few letters of resignation from Lib Dems over the last few years and artistically they have been disappointing: many seem somewhat disingenuous – the potter gasping with astonishment that his idol, who he had been working on for some time, does indeed have feet of clay. Many have been sad and quite moving, particularly when I’ve known the person and how hard it must have been for them to write. But none have been surprising and all have brought in to the idea that one is either a Lib Dem or one isn’t. I’d like political identities to be fuzzier than that – the way political views are. As you might have guessed from the last paragraph I’m something of a Gramscian, and I think the debate around the ideas is far more important than the actual voting and the winning elections. I’d far rather have Nick Clegg as Prime Minister if we could be transported into a progressive socially liberal cultural hegemon, than have Prime Minister Owen Jones in the current cultural climate. Because Politicians don’t have anywhere near as much agency as we assume.

So I might vote Lib Dem and I might not (probably not if it means voting for the coalition) but I reserve the right to pick and choose as I see fit. I probably won’t work for them again, but that is more a lifestyle choice. Because it shouldn’t matter: your party is not your football team.

PS Admittedly I did once get drunk and send an email which was a kind-of letter of resignation – but that scarcely counts.

Fred Carver was a participant observer of the Liberal Democrats for six years. He was a councillor in Camden for a bit and ran some elections, mostly in north London. 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers