Blog | September 6, 2017 | - Faran Mahmood

Fuelled by a Panama gate episode and the recent dismissal of third-time elected Prime Minister of Pakistan by the court of highest order, a public call for accountability has spread like wildfire over the past few months - while the government is trying to hang a silver lining around the not-so-favourable court decision.

Although the possibility of snap elections is still remote, opposition parties are realising that they need to change their game in order to stop the incumbent government from regaining a thumping majority in 2018.

When it comes to election campaigning in Pakistan, most political parties and pseudo-political forces in our country are at the beck and call of their party leadership. The larger-than-life personality of a typical party leadership means that their personal vision dominates the party manifesto.

There is, however, a need to realise that successful politicians don’t act solely on the basis of their principled commitments to high ideals but they rather resort to campaign rhetoric that only tell partial stories. Government, for example, is trying to indulge in the rhetoric of the following kind: "Dear Taxpayers, we did tonnes of work in infrastructure development with the assistance of the Chinese while the opposition has been engineering an advocacy campaign to sabotage the nation building process all that time; so you decide who the lesser evil is."

The use of technology to gauge public opinion in real-time is getting more and more sophisticated and two mainstream political parties already employ data analytics techniques to drive their media strategy.

Politicians then pick strategic positions on various policy matters based on common sentiments such that if their rivals decide to disagree, they will lose support of a major chunk of their voters. On the contrary, if their opponents choose to endorse, they will again seem to compromise on their core ideology. 

Corruption in Pakistan is yesterday’s news

A pilot survey conducted by the TrackReps team revealed that the top three issues that will decide which party gets the ultimate prize in next elections are: national security, economy and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) projects.

Although the authenticity of such a survey needs independent validation from other professional bodies, it does give a rough idea of key trends in designing a campaign for upcoming elections. According to the survey, citizens felt that the Panama papers didn’t affect their daily lives as the fact that the country’s politicians are corrupt was not news for them.

It is becoming apparent that ‘corruption’ can’t be the key theme for winning the next elections as hardly any party leader could be given a clean chit. In fact, corruption is so rife, even in developed countries like USA, that it is almost impossible to eradicate this menace.

The question of the hour: what issues will actually matter in the next general elections?

Best practices from election campaign experts reveal that the position of a median voter predicts the political outcome. But what does this mean in the context of our local politics? In layman terms, it implies that any party, which takes an extreme position on any policy issue will most probably lose the popular vote.

Too anti infrastructure spending and CPEC, a party may lose a lot of votes. Acting desperately to get all the credit for CPEC, the party’s supporters might sway to the other side. Adopting a hardliner (and undiplomatic) agenda against Islamism means the party again will lose support of a lot of well wishers. Similarly, a softer stance on extremism means one will be labelled as a threat to national security.

The bottom-line? Insights from our data analytics team recommend that it is better to stick to the middle. A party should not come up with sophisticated plans to revolutionise the system. The best advice to reformists could be: Follow your ‘average’ voter – not just the voter in Islamabad or Lahore.

About the author

The writer has worked as a programme fellow for Making All Voice Count and as a strategy consultant for USHAHIDI in Pakistan and the views on this blog are his own. He tweets at @faranmah