If the Internet were the only electorate, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would be victorious by a landslide. Team Imran has made great strides in the cyberspace leaving far behind other political parties in Pakistan.
The ground realities, however, are much different from the cyber avatars of political leaders and their parties. With fewer than 10 persons per 100, Pakistan boasts one of the lowest Internet penetrations in the world suggesting that cyber support for political ideologies may not influence the outcome in the May 11 elections.
A comparison of the websites of main political parties in Pakistan suggests that the PTI has a clear lead on the competition. PTI’s website is one of the top 160 most visited websites in Pakistan. Nawaz League’s (PML-N) website is the second most visited website. However, PML-N’s website is amongst the 2,000 most visited websites in Pakistan, suggesting much less Internet traffic than that of the PTI. The ruling party’s (PPP) website is the fourth-most visited website, falling even behind that of the Sindh-based ethnic party, MQM.
The Internet savvy in Pakistan are no different from the rest of the world. The most frequently visited website in Pakistan is Facebook, the popular social networking utility. Other popular websites include search engines, such as Amazon.com, Wikipedia, and LinkedIn. Youtube.com, the video-sharing website that remains banned in Pakistan, is listed as the 10th most frequented website.
Political parties, despite their popularity as socio-political movements, do not enjoy the same level of popularity (or notoriety in some cases) in the cyberspace. Whereas, the ruling Congress Party in India may very well be the world’s largest democratic party, its Internet popularity falls short of its street credence. Consider that Congress Party’s website ranks 20,615 by way of the Internet traffic in India. PTI, in comparison, is ranked 157 in Pakistan. Globally, PTI’s website is ranked at 23,432, far ahead of India’s Congress Party’ website, which is ranked at 196, 404.
In fact, PTI’s Internet success is even more spectacular if the Party’s web traffic is compared with its peers globally. PTI’s website generates more web traffic than the Democratic Party’s website in the United States, which is ranked 23,848 in the US, and 104,051 globally, lagging far behind PTI’s website whose global rank makes it the 23,432 most-frequented website in the world.
Other web-metrics also suggest that PTI’s website is able to engage visitors in a more meaningful way than the rest in Pakistan. Two key metrics that serve as proxy for a successful website are the average time spent by a visitor on the website and the number of distinct web-pages viewed. PTI’s website is far ahead of the rest in both metrics. On average, a visitor spends 4 minutes and 28 seconds per day on PTI’s website. The second-most attention retaining website is that of MQM where visitors on average spent 3 minutes and 28 seconds. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party lags even behind Jamat-i-Islami’s (JI) website with an average visitor spending 2 minutes and 27 seconds.
As for the unique web pages visited by a user, again PTI’s website is far ahead with 3.68 webpage views. Jamati-Islami’s website secured the second place for this metric. Note that PPP’s website has failed to stand out for any metric reported so far.
Many have argued that Imran Khan’s PTI may be attracting web traffic from abroad, suggesting that while the Party’s website is popular, the popularity, however, may be owed to Imran Khan’s fans abroad. Unlike other politicians in Pakistan, Imran Khan indeed has a global following because of his stature as a former world-class cricketer.
Another key metric that may help resolve this issue is the percentage of web-traffic generated within Pakistan. Interestingly, 75 per cent of PTI’s web traffic is generated from within Pakistan. PPP’s website also generates 75 per cent web traffic from within Pakistan. Surprisingly, it is PML-Q’s (the former King’s Party) website that boasts the greatest share of foreign visitors to its website. The Awami National Party, a regional political entity that draws its support from the Pushtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, generates the highest web-traffic from within Pakistan.
Outside of Pakistan, PTI’s website attracts the greatest share of visitors from the United Kingdom (UK). Almost 5.5 per cent of the web traffic to PTI’s website originates in the UK, followed by 5 per cent from Canada. Another 3 per cent traffic originates in Australia. The US-based web traffic to PTI’s website at 2 per cent is much smaller than expected. Given that Pakistani Diaspora is much smaller in size in Canada and Australia than the one in the US, one may conclude that the Party has stronger roots and better organisation in Canada and Australia than it does in the US.
A word about the web visitors
A look at the demographics of those who frequent PTI’s website confirms the perception that the PTI is more popular amongst the youth than otherwise. The green colour bars for 18 to 24 years old in the following graph suggest that the PTI’s website attracts significantly more individuals in this particular cohort than other websites. At the same time, PTI’s website attracts comparatively lower share of 35-plus cohorts than other websites. Also obvious in the following graphic is the fact that PTI’s website is frequented much more by highly educated individuals with graduate degrees than other websites. A male bias is also obvious from the graph, which may result from the fact that men outnumber women in Pakistan in using the Internet for political purposes.
Turning web visitors in voters
PTI’s popularity is owed, to a large extent, to the cult-like following of its founder, Imran Khan, who made his name as one of the cricketing world’s best all-rounders. He led Pakistan to a world cup victory, a feat no other Pakistani cricket captain has been able to repeat since. Imran Khan’s political fortunes changed in 2009 when he succeeded in generating significant interest in his politics. The graph below summarises the relative popularity of key political players in Pakistan by turning the Google-based searches into an index. The blue-line represents Imran Khan’s web-based popularity that is characteristically higher than that of others including President Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Altaf Hussain, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
PTI’s professional web-team has indeed afforded a comparative advantage that may be hard for others to replicate. Until yesterday, PML-N’s website was down for maintenance. The websites of other parties suggest that they have been designed and maintained by novices. It takes great skill to have PTI’s website ranked higher than the websites for much larger political parties in the US and India. Team Imran deserves credit for this.
A larger question still looms in the background. Can web visitors be turned into voters? And even a larger concern is about those Pakistanis who are not yet on the Internet. World Bank statistics suggest that more than 90 per cent Pakistanis do not have access to the Internet. The web success thus represents the popularity amongst a tiny minority of privileged Pakistanis. It says nothing about the down-trodden millions who have yet to get on any highway, let alone the information super-highway.
If PTI is serious about winning the next elections, it has to achieve two key targets. First, it has to convert web visitors into voters. There is no guarantee that those who visit PTI’s website will also vote for the Party’s candidates.
But more importantly, PTI has to push its workers out of the digital domain onto the dirt roads in villages and small towns across Pakistan to convince the real electorate to vote for the Party’s candidates who hitherto remain unknown entities to most. Even the Party’s website is yet to even list the names of the candidates it plans to file in the next elections.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of Regionomics.com.
He tweets @regionomics.
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.