Raza Habib Raja
I must admit one thing: I had never expected around two years ago that Imran Khan’s Facebook supporters will actually come out on the polling day and vote. In fact not only they came out but they actually instilled passion and enthusiasm in the entire election campaign. Imran has motivated them and touched the raw visceral nerve of the class which previously has largely been apolitical. His appeal also influenced many of the youngsters from major urban cities who all came out during the campaign filling huge venues like Minar-e-Pakistan. Apart from that Imran’s influence was also dominant in conservative belt of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(KP).
These three set of demographics formed the core constituency of Imran Khan. Moreover, another set of voter, has voted for PTI is the PPP voter which in some urban areas of Punjab has broken away from PPP and instead of voting for PML (N) has ended up either abstaining or voting for PTI thus throwing the “split” theory into dust. The split theory postulated that PPP’s vote bank is always constant and therefore a three way race would benefit PPP by splitting the so called rightwing vote. I will talk at length about the banality of this assumption later but first let us discuss PTI.
PTI has done what the objective circles were expecting and realistically speaking it is a good performance. It was expected that in urban Punjab, it will show a strong performance. It has actually done that though compared to PML N it seems insignificant. It has displaced PPP completely from the urban Punjab and in almost every major urban constituency has secured reasonable votes. In Pindi and Islamabad, it has taken almost half of the seats. It has a majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and while has not taken many seats in Punjab but has emerged as the second largest party in terms of popular vote.
Even in Karachi, PTI has performed reasonably well and has emerged as the second largest party behind MQM. Now in Karachi this is amazing performance as without the pressure tactics employed by MQM, PTI would have ended up taking two or three seats.
Surveys before the elections were predicting that PTI and PPP would receive almost the same popular vote. The only difference was that it was expected that PPP would win around 55-70 seats whereas PTI would win around 35-40 seats. The difference in the number of seats was due to constituency dynamics where PPP was in a better state compared to novice PTI.
However, for PTI supporters this is peanuts because they were actually expecting more than 100 seats. Their projections of course did not have any scientific basis and were premised on what they were witnessing on social media, TV talk shows ( where most of the anchorpersons are Pro PTI) and in rallies.
No survey ever predicted that PTI would get 100 seats. Yes it was assumed that higher turnout would benefit PTI. But the surveys had already incorporated that aspect as these had asked questions from the likely voters.
So why this impression that PTI would sweep Pakistan was so strong in PTI supporters? I kept on hearing extremely unrealistic assessments from several of my friends who are PTI supporters. Some were actually projecting more than 150 seats!
Social media and for that matter even electronic media has a tendency to amplify what its targeted section of the urban middleclass feels and believes in. Since media apparently reflects opinions, many of us do not really venture to even know WHOSE opinions it is reflecting. In Pakistan, it is mostly reflecting the mindset of a narrow but affluent section of society. This section of society is generally educated and believes in concepts like merit and rule of law. Corruption in their collective opinion is the major problem of Pakistan.
This section of the society is largely residing in the large urban metropolises like Karachi, Lahore, Pindi, Islamabad and Peshawar. Of course not everyone falling into this category is identical to each other but since politics eventually deals with collectives therefore by and large this class has certain morals and adhere to a particular narrative.
Many belonging to this segment in individual capacity saw literally everyone they knew jump on the Imran Khan bandwagon. It gave this collective impression that perhaps majority of Pakistan had fallen for PTI. Big rallies, fully covered by media in the urban centers also solidified this impression. There is absolutely NO doubt that PTI was gaining popularity but the assumption that it had become the most popular party fully capable of winning majority was highly misplaced.
Moreover, PTI supporters largely saw each other and their immediate surroundings and had this perception bias that everyone was supporting PTI. The reality was that perhaps everyone in their own vicinity was supporting PTI. Most of the Facebook users were supporting PTI but Pakistan is much larger than Facebook!!
In Lahore which has been a PML N stronghold, PTI was popular in areas like DHA, Gulberg, Askari, Johar Town etc. To the residents of such areas PTI had a very pronounced physical presence which could not escape their eyes. But even within these affluent areas, there were pockets where PML N was strong but of course those pockets were oblivious to them. Generally small retailers, traders and many from the lower middleclass were supporting PML N. And it is this support, which enabled PML N to eventually still win in the cities.
Moreover, there was a media hype that an overwhelming majority of young voters would be voting for PTI. The point is that just because Imran’s city rallies contained a large number of young people did not mean that all young people in the cities and more importantly in smaller cities and rural areas would also vote for PTI. There was no scientific basis for making such a claim except the urban perception bias.
In addition, Pakistan is a very diverse country and a huge majority thinks very differently from those who support PTI . In fact a huge majority has very different problems than what is being articulated in the media. In our media, the entire discourse is dominated by the words “corruption”, “merit” and “national sovereignty “ Many of the PTI supporters also keep on talking about Imran’s honesty and sincerity and corruption of PML N and PPP leaders. However, for voters ( other than PTI) this may not be the first concern of life. When a party tries to expand its reach, it has to connect with various demographics including those who may not have “corruption” as the most important priority. PTI’s error has been to just concentrate too much on the urban middleclass values .
In rural areas, Imran needed strong candidates also. They did join initially but later many left PTI as the party was under pressure to only keep “clean’ people. Some still remained but momentum in rural areas had shifted towards PML (N) after the by-elections (on 7 seats) in November 2012 which PML (N) won comfortably. Most of the strong candidates started to flock towards PML (N) after by-elections.
In addition, Imran also made pledges that he will not allocate funds to MNAs as their job is legislation. Now this is principally a right thing to say but given our culture in rural areas where MNAs are elected for ensuring access to state resources, such pledges can really backfire.
PTI has started to allege about rigging. In my opinion on some seats it may have taken place. Seats like NA 250, NA 122, NA 125 need to be investigated as several irregularities have been reported. However to assume that entire PML N victory over PTI was rigged is frankly stretching it too much. Outside urban middleclass colonies, it is PML (N) which is more popular. In rural areas also, it is much more firmly entrenched.
PTI has a future if the base remains committed and Imran is able to reach out to more diverse set of people other than the urban middleclass in urban Punjab, Karachi and KP. His supporters have to realize that mass success occurs when masses are engaged without giving them vibes of alienation. I have personally heard some of my friends using derogatory words for masses like “Jahil awam”. This kind of condescending attitude wont help the masses to warm up to PTI.
If PTI remain s active as opposition and remains visible, there is every chance that it will gain in strength.
With respect to PPP, first of all let me admit that I would have voted for PPP had I been in Pakistan. Despite being a PPP supporter, my candid opinion is it has shown a dismal performance. With the advantage of the hindsight it can be concluded that its leaders just like PTI supporters completely misjudged the situation.
In urban areas, it has been a rout. In fact all across Pakistan except rural Sindh the party has been decimated.
One of the most banal and over simplistic assumption which PPP believed was that PTI would end up bolstering its prospects in Punjab. The central idea about this split vote was the over confident assumption that PPP’s own vote remains constant and therefore Imran Khan would split PML (N)’s vote. This naïve assumption even overlooked the fact that millions were going to vote for the first time and first time voter can be categorized as anyone’s vote bank. Moreover, it was simply assumed that the split would be from PML (N) to PTI. The fact that could actually split occur of PPP own vote bank never crossed their minds. Rather than reaching out to people, the reliance was on this split theory.
In addition, PPP was badly hurt by crippling power crisis. More than anything else, daily power cuts were a constant reminder to people of all walks to life about incompetency of the PPP government. In Punjab during summers power cuts were up to 12 hours and in rural up to 18 hours. Such power cuts literally affected all walks of life and in the end cost PPP dearly.
The media also never gave PPP any respite and relentlessly criticized it. Even achievement s of PPP like 18th amendment and improved NFC award were completely ignored. Constant tussle of PPP with Judiciary also occupied PPP towards ensuring its survival rather than giving attention to more pressing problems.
PPP’s strategy to push the issue of Seraiki province also did not yield the desired results. In fact PPP was confident that it would sweep Southern Punjab. However, it badly lost there also. The crisis of governance and electricity shortages completely defeated their strategy of extracting political mileage out of new province slogan.
But the worst problem turned out to be President’s repute. Now Asif Ali Zardari was an asset in some ways due to his brilliant Machiavellian political acumen. He literally ensured party’s survival. But electorally he proved to be the ideal punch bag. In fact, all the dissatisfaction from PPP was directed at his persona and he was held personally responsible for all the major problems. Media was always at him and some of the anchorpersons were literally vicious.
For PPP, the challenge is huge. It has to realize that it can no longer continue to extract mileage out of Bhutto name. It also needs to realize that it has to have a future in urban areas because the demographics are changing and if it does not come up with a way to capture the imagination of urban voter, it will be rendered completely irrelevant. And above all it needs to remember that a government needs to properly govern also.