Pakistan’s 11th general elections to be held on May 11 will be like no other as it will have 40 million first-time voters out of a total of 86 million voters, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan. “These new voters will turn Pakistan’s political scene on its head,” predicts political analyst Ghazi Salahuddin.
What makes the younger voter more significant in this election is also the fact that the ECP nullified over 35 million votes in its counting exercise in the lead up to the elections. In this, the new voter became one third of the total vote from an earlier one fourth.
Sensing this trend, political parties have geared up their campaigns to woo the younger lot, many in the hope that they will sail home on the new entrants as they cannot change the preferences of the older ones.
One of the parties that has been most focused on this has been Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party. All its political jalsas are having a musical touch –with popular singers like Salman Ahmad of Junoon and Abrar ul Haq livening up the proceedings. The party has also commissioned its own songs and uploaded them on the Internet where they are eagerly shared.
Even conservative parties like Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party are using music to lure voters. People are often found singing nationalistic songs during the party’s gatherings.
Parties have also spent millions on their social media departments, keeping in mind the high online presence of younger Pakistanis. The Tehreek-e-Insaf’s cyber cell became so active at one point that journalists started complaining that they were being bullied by PTI trolls if and when they were critical of Imran Khan. The party took note of this and issued a code of conduct for its office-bearers.
There is also a joke doing the rounds in Pakistan that the number of General Musharraf’s facebook fans far exceeds his actual on-ground voters.
Both the PTI and the Karachi-based MQM party also have a massive following. The MQM operates from its headquarters in Karachi where hundreds of bloggers have been employed alongwith other staff to write and monitor what is being written about the party. In comparison, mainstream parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML-N have not been quick to grasp the importance of social media. But they are now slowly catching up.
Earlier this year, for example, the PML-N instructed all its office-bearers to have a Facebook and twiteer presence. This met with limited success. But the party’s laptop scheme – in which thousands of laptops were distributed to deserving students in the Punjab province in last five years – has been a resounding success.
The thrust of Nawaz Sharif’s election promises is towards the youth – promising jobs, educational opportunities and loans for small businesses. Imran Khan, in contrast, appeals to the frustration of the young. He has promised to eliminate corruption in Pakistan “in 90 days”, to end terrorism and to bring all those who have looted the country’s wealth to justice. These promises appeal to the youth, many of who are bitter with the way democracy has functioned so far.
Youtube is playing its part too. A clip of Bilawal Bhutto trying to speak in Urdu has been a hot favourite. Several clips of indiscretions and mistakes by politicians are shared frequently despite the fact that Youtube remains officially banned in Pakistan.
Another question many ask is whether the new voter will actually go out and vote. Feroz Khan of the PTI says that his party’s voters are committed.
But the bigger parties like the PPP, ANP and MQM have all complained that their voters have been scared by the consistent terror attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. “There is a deliberate plan to keep our voters home,” alleges Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM.
Analysts, however, fear that with the change in the demography of the voters, the parties are focusing more on gimmicks than highlighting the real issues like terrorism and corruption in their campaigns.
“When Imran Khan says that his cricket bat, which is his party’s election symbol, will hit Nawaz Sharif for a six or he will make a tikka out of Sharif’s lion they are just entertaining the voters and not giving solutions to real problems, Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says.