In the contentious 1990s, politicians used the floor of the parliament and rallies to rail against opponents. Pakistan’s newest crop of politicians isn’t taking to the mic but to the smartphone.
Over the past few years, most mainstream political and religious parties — from the PML-N and the ANP to the PTI and the JI — have established an extensive presence on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Will the social media have an impact on the elections? Former legislators such as the PML-N’s Marvi Memon and the ANP’s Bushra Gohar disagree. According to Memon, “My constituency is a rural one [she is contesting a National Assembly seat from Thatta]. Twitter won’t have an impact there.” Gohar makes the same point: “I don’t see the social media playing any significant impact on this year’s election. Personally, I feel radio debates and discussions play a more substantial role in voters’ education on critical issues.”
Gohar doesn’t feel Twitter helped in her role as a legislator but she feels it was a “good source for getting diverse opinions and articles”. Memon, on the other hand, used her Twitter account as a way of sharing her daily work. “It helped me because I have been able to get feedback,” she says. The PML-N, according to Memon said, has a social media wing and the initiative is led by Maryam Nawaz Sharif.
“One of the major things [on May 11] will be to get the vote out,” says Imran Ghazali, head of the PTI’s social media team. “People used to say that we are a ‘Facebook party’ and that our members would never come to rallies. Now that they come to rallies people say, ‘this burger crowd won’t show up to vote’. We’re going to push them enough to do so.”
Ghazali says that the social media will influence the elections in terms of encouraging people to vote and report voter fraud. The party has launched a new election website to solicit funding for under-35 candidates, and will be uploading detailed bios of each of its candidates online. He adds that on election day, the PTI will also have a “crowd-sourced system online that will be open to all parties” to record voter complaints and election rigging through tweets and videos. “This will be open to the people and the media.”
According to Ghazali, the PTI is talking to media groups and the Election Commission of Pakistan to forward this information on a formal basis. “Getting it implemented isn’t in our hands, but we can report it,” he said.
Ibraheem Qazi, who works at the JI social media wing and whose late grandfather Qazi Hussain Ahmed headed the party for 22 years, says that the role of the social media on election day is relevant as far as broadcasting information goes. “For candidates, the situation on the ground is very different from what is on the social media,” he points out. “We are from the streets.” The JI’s vote bank isn’t necessarily one that has access to a smartphone or an internet connection.
Twitter and Facebook are also largely restricted to those who can read and write English, since most communication online is in English — though Gohar says that she knows of “many who communicate in Urdu and Pashto”.
The PPP has a nearly negligible presence online, though several legislators are using Twitter and Facebook such as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman and former Sindh adviser Sharmila Faruqi. The ANP also does not have a concerted push towards the social media within the party but there is growing interest in its membership base.
The MQM, however, has a strong social media campaign, especially on Twitter. The party’s Faisal Subzwari feels that the social media will definitely have an impact on the elections. “We just launched our manifesto and had its details online, and [our] candidates are also putting their campaign activities online. It is important for outreach, especially for the young, urban class,” he comments. Subzwari also noted that there will be an impact on election day itself. “Campaigning has to stop 48 hours prior to polling but there is no such bar on social media,” he observes.
The PTI considers itself a leader as far as social media initiatives go, from developing mobile phone applications to its extensive website. “Other parties are spending a lot of money, they have paid employees. Every single person [on the PTI’s social media team] is a volunteer,” claims Ghazali, who quit his job to work full time for the PTI. The party has 60 volunteers who work on social media and other web-based initiatives. It has Facebook groups that date back to 2006 and has organised a Google Hangout — an online chat — with party chief Imran Khan. Nearly all of its prominent leaders are on Twitter.
The old-school JI has also incorporated the social media into its outreach strategy. The move was sparked by a resolution passed by the JI’s shura, after which the party’s information wing expanded and set up a base in its Lahore headquarters of Mansoora. The party now has 8,000 volunteers countrywide assisting it on social media platforms.
According to Ibraheem Qazi, the JI’s social media team has helped its leadership use Twitter by installing the mobile application on their smartphones. “Munawar Hasan [the current head of the JI] looks at the tweets [he receives] and replies himself,” says Qazi. The late Qazi Hussain Ahmed, he recalls, would also use Twitter on his BlackBerry. “He used to be very happy; he could get all the news as well as information from Egypt and Tunisia since that was the time of the revolution.”
While Twitter and Facebook continue to be useful tools, political parties will be going back to the basics for the elections. After all, a 140-character tweet can’t compare to a speech to potential voters in a constituency. “Election day itself is very important,” says Qazi. “You never know how the tables can turn.”