Election Diary – Four


Election campaign and modern technology

The final list of the candidates is out. There are more contestants in these elections than was the case in the 2008 elections. Invariably four to five candidates are contesting in each constituency. In some cases there are more candidates but not all candidates are taken seriously. In all 148 political parties have obtained election symbols but not all of them are going to put up more than a couple of candidates. The number of independent candidates appears to be on the rise. Most of them opted to run as independent after their favourite party being rejected them for allocation of party ticket.

There is an overcrowding of candidates on the right of political spectrum. More candidates will be competing for the Islamist and the Political Right votes. However, family and baradari linkages, local political factionalism, personality of the candidates and how has the candidate engaged in community service in the past will influence voting behaviour. Every party has a secure vote bank that is associated with the party leader or the party identity. However, no party has enough vote bank to secure a comfortable majority in the National Assembly. Every party has to make efforts to win other votes.

Though there are reserved seats for women, thirty-six women are contesting on general seats. Some non-Muslims are also contesting on general seats.

The candidates started their election campaign on individual basis soon after the filing of the nomination papers. However, the pace of the election campaign has been slow mainly because the unnecessarily elaborate scrutiny of the nomination papers and the Returning Officers’ efforts to embarrass the candidates in the name of Islam caused confusion. This also delayed the allocation of party ticket by political parties. All this delayed the start of the election campaign and if some candidate began their campaign in their constituency on individual basis it was low-keyed.

From April 19-20 the political parties formally launched their election campaign. Up to now, Imran Khan’s PTI appears to be most active. This is followed by the PMLN. The PPP is keeping a low profile due to the non-availability of leaders of national stature. It is paying more attention to putting out advertisements in newspapers and private sector TV channels than holding public meetings. President Zardari cannot lead the election campaign. The top PPP leaders, especially Bilawal Bhutto, Faryal Talpur and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, face terrorist threat. Their visibility is very low. The PPP’s focus is on invoking the Bhutto legacy.

The traditional methods of election campaign are being supplemented by the use of modern communication technologies. The traditional methods like door to door contacts, meetings with the residents of a locality, interaction with community leaders, use of handbills, party flags and posters and banners are being employed. The candidates and parties are avoiding big public meetings, election marches, night time rallies and a high visibility election campaigning. These campaign methods used to turn election campaign into a big festival. Now, the threat of terrorism has forced the political parties to reduce big rallies and marches to the minimum.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) and their local affiliates are using suicide and remote control bombings to demonstrate their capacity to operate and strike freely in Pakistan, disrupt the election process and deter the ordinary people from coming out for voting on the polling day. Such attacks have taken place in Peshawar, Mardan, Karachi and parts of Balochistan and the tribal areas. Several people have been killed in these incidents.

The TTP is targeting the candidates and election campaign of three liberal-left parties: the ANP, the MQM and the PPP. This is working to the advantage of Islamic political parties whose meetings and electioneering are not targeted by them. One of the PML-N candidates in Balochistan faced bombing attack on his entourage. This attack was done by a separatist Baloch group. The Punjab is peaceful, at least up to now. This gives a clear edge to the Tehrik-e-Insaf and the PML-N that are dominating election campaign in the Punjab. Imran Khan adopts a pro-Taliban position and the PML-N maintains ambiguity towards hard-line Islamic groups, avoiding direct criticism of the Taliban and the Punjab based sectarian groups.

Modern communication technologies are being used more frequently this time than was the case in the February 2008 elections. Mobile phones are the main communication system in election campaigning and the monitoring of the polling stations. Mobile phone message system is currently being used to send political messages for seeking support as well as for inviting activists and voters to party meetings. Facebook and Twitter are also being used for debating the elections affairs, especially the election manifestos and the role of the leadership in political parties. Some of these exchanges are contentious and the supporters of different political parties trade charges and counter charges. The e-mail messages are also used for sending publicity material and for inviting people to meetings.

All major parties are using these technologies. However, the PTI was the first party to use modern communication technologies for political mobilization and publicity. The PML-N has established a special team working under the leadership of Maryam Nawaz Sharif for using information technology for building support and communicating regularly with voters and supporters. The PPP is rather slow in adopting modern communication technologies. Almost all political parties have their web pages, although all parties are not efficient enough in updating their web page.

The use of modern communication technology, especially the use of computer for communication, is limited to urban population. A large part of rural population and the poor section of population in cities do not have much access to the computer related communication technology.

The political parties have hired advertising agencies and media groups for projection of the party through the media and to design media and publicity campaigns. The PTI and the PML-N have hired or borrowed small aircraft/helicopters to enable the leadership to travel quickly across the country. The Pir of Pagaro (PML-Functional) has his own aircraft and the PPP is expected to hire one.

There is a lot of focus on newspaper advertisements and projection through television. Colored handbills and posters and banners are commonly used. In some cases the candidates violate the Election Commission’s limits on size of posters and billboards.

The administrations of major cities are charging fee for displaying party/candidate posters on roadsides. In this way the city administrations are earning a reasonable amount of revenue. The election campaign has become an expensive affair.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.