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Can sympathy swing votes?


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enter image description hereHow does a person decide whom to vote for? This is indeed a riddle that is very hard to solve. Experts have identified a number of factors and tried their various combinations. They count on party loyalty, ideological inkling, ethnic-biradari associations or simply a community’s vested interest.

Some think that an accident can give rise to a wave of sympathy that can make voters change their earlier decisions and cast the ballot in favor of the sufferer/victim. This is termed as the sympathy vote.

This theory started resonating in electronic and social media as soon as Imran Khan fell from an extended stage. Many of the electoral successes of the PPP are also attributed to the sympathy vote that its shaheeds had invoked. Does the sympathy vote really exist? I examined one election to check this out.

The renowned and popular leader of Pakistan People’s Party, Benazir Bhutto, returned home in 2007 after years in self exile and was assassinated just a few days before polling. The party was not getting any bad press at that time. It did not suffer from any incumbency factor and in fact, had been on the forefront in the popular campaign for the restoration of judiciary. If there is anything called a ‘sympathy vote’, it must have the most visible presence in PPP’s election performance in 2008. Following is what the numbers say.

PPP won 9.2 per cent more votes in Pakhtunkhwa in 2008 compared with the previous elections. But so did other parties with no sympathy value, ANP gained 8.3 per cent and the Nawaz League grew by 7.9 per cent in the province. In fact, every party gained more votes in the province as the Mutahida Majilis-e-Amal bubble burst. The alliance lost around a million of its 2002 votes here (1.41 million, 2002). The alliance’s loss became others gain and the PPP’s share in the booty was not disproportionate to others. Furthermore, the PPP’s share in the votes polled in the province in 2008 (18.9 per cent) was still way less than what it was in 1988 (26.2 per cent) and 1990 (21.9 per cent). PPP thus got no sympathy vote in Pakhtunkhwa.

Balochistan presented a similar scenario where the boycott by the nationalists created a vacuum and the remaining contestants, including the PPP, got a walkover.

Sympathy did not lead the way in Punjab either. PPP gained just two per cent more of the polled votes than it had in 2002. The party had increased its vote bank by 4.4 per cent in 2002 compared with 1997. So its growth actually slowed down in 2008. The PPP’s 2008 share in polled votes in the province was 9 to 14 per cent lesser than what it had been in the elections held from 1970 to 1993. So, there was no sympathy vote for PPP in Punjab in 2008.

The situation in Sindh was the most intriguing. PPP added a massive 1.5 million votes to its 2002 tally of 2.2 million (it got 3.7 million votes in 2008). This impressive increase of 66 per cent, however, raised its number of seats from 27 to just 31. So the party polled more votes on the seats that were already considered its stronghold.

Now compare it with the performance of the MQM. The party’s increase in the vote bank was historic. It almost tripled its vote bank – securing 0.93 million votes in 2002 and 2.55 million in 2008. The reflection of this massive increase in the party seats was quite humble – MQM’s seats rose from 13 in 2002 to 19 in 2008. The MQM too, polled more votes on the seats that were already considered its stronghold.

It was thus a Sindh-wide trend and not specific to the PPP – more votes, little increase in seats. It signified the abject law and order situation and the poor quality of election administration in the province and NOT the wave of sympathy in PPP’s favor.

No voters are overtaken by their emotions when casting votes. Stay calm. Imran Khan will recover from his injury soon and the election game remains as poised as it was earlier.

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The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

———————————————————————————————————————————————— The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

He tweets @TahirMehdiZ

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (33) Closed

Irtiza May 09, 2013 04:20pm

I disagree with your analysis. You're comparing the increase in votes cast with previous elections and not accounting for the population bulge between 2002 and 2008 - which was massive. All your analysis tells us is that the parties that won before won again from the same seats with natural increase in votes counted due to corresponding natural increase in population.

You should actually be looking at survey results prior to 2008 and match them with the actual result in 2008. The will tell you whether there was any swing or not minus the population bias.

N K Ali May 10, 2013 11:17am

Yes certainly. There are many reasons 'why to' and 'why not' to vote for IK. The man, IK, has charisma and honesty. The 'pluses' and 'minuses' in a person are natural but the question remains how and when a person develops the pluses through external and internal stimuli. Imran has built a cancer hospital and a university of world standards. After all, he has seen the world and learnt the good and the bad 'of' and 'from' it. Salams

pathanoo May 09, 2013 04:56pm
I don't believe there would be much of a sympathy vote at this stage to change the result. Insignificant, may be.
Mohammad Adam Khan May 10, 2013 03:39am
Imran Khan could used that incident and would get huge turn over in his favor, If he uses that situation cleverly. I mean, after Imran has fell from the lifter, news spread like fire, in the country and even in the whole world. People were start getting seriously worried about Imran's health. But after one or two hours he has exposed himself in front of media, that only he got few stitches on his head and nothing is serious. Rather he could go this way, kept himself away from the media and just pretend to gain sympathy of people stay all night in ICU, in the morning would released his audio message. But in other side all this pretension hard for him, because honest man has inside of him.
Haider May 10, 2013 03:34am
That's why Zardari became the president of this nation?
Lakhkar Khan May 09, 2013 08:11pm
The people who want Imran Khan to win don
Abubakar May 09, 2013 09:21am
No sympathy vote this time. It doesn't make sense.
Tahir May 09, 2013 09:36am
Yes it could as it did immediately after BB's death. It was female chauvinism then and it is more Al Pacino lookalike religio-cultural hero now.
ayaz May 09, 2013 09:43am
The writer clearly forgot to take new voters in consideration.
A sincere Pakistani May 09, 2013 10:11am
Voters should not change their mind. This is an excellent opportunity for the Pakistani voters to show to the outside world that they are a mature people who are not carried away by emotions.
Farooq Ali May 09, 2013 11:54am
In my view the sympathy does not add new voters to the list of suffering party or candidate but it pushes sleeping voters to come out charged with emotions and cast their vote for the candidate who has been targeted .
farid May 09, 2013 11:56am
Imran Khan does not need sympathy votes. He has a genuine and honest political agenda.
aabdul May 09, 2013 07:48pm
A country that believes in blasphemy laws, Hudood ordinance will suddenly wake up and show the world how mature they are? PTI supporters have become too emotional and irrational.
aabdul May 09, 2013 07:45pm
No point in focusing on sympathy or any kind of emotion. People will vote who they always support. Given what all polls reveal, PTI will be number 3. They now have to decide if they want to participate as opposition members or generate more conspiracy theories in Pakistan.
Riaz Ahmad May 09, 2013 07:40pm
Sympathy or no sympathy is besides the point, neither the great leader nor his party have asked for any sympathy. National show of sympathy by media and people is in recognition if Imran as a great and honest leader. The PPP con men and con women on the other hand, after relentlessly looting the people, through their adds, posters and songs are begging for sympathy; a ultimate show of their shameless and honour-less nature.
umer May 09, 2013 07:29pm
they clearly didnt make a difference.
Akram May 09, 2013 12:56pm
i agree with you
Agha Ata (USA) May 09, 2013 01:14pm
Imran Khan needs votes from people who can sympathize with themselves.
Seeda USA May 09, 2013 04:20pm
Sympathy votes aside, Imran Khan is an un parallelled leader, brave, steadfast, undaunted. Though bedridden, in pain with serious injuries there is no let up in his striving and inspiring his ever inreasing supporters for the realization of his vision for Pakistan.He follows the legacy of the founder of the nation who despite sharing with his doctor the devastating secret of his suffering from an incurable illness , carried on relentlessly, undeterred till he succeeded in his mission - the birth and creation of Pakistan. Inshallah! the PTI fired by the clarion call of their leader, Imran Khan will not let down the nation .They will rise to the ocasion and for all the world to witness, sweep in with resounding success, a new Pakistan, tsunami cleansed of all evils. 1 1
moazzam khan May 10, 2013 08:22am
I don,t think Imran khan needs sympathy votes,what he need love & respectability and of course understanding from people of pakistan.What he did to achieve in cricket,what he did to show his love to his mother and last 17 years single handed efforts to make Pakistan a better prosperous and respectable reflects his Immense love for his mother country. Sympathy does not match with his character
Accountant May 10, 2013 08:57am
Its a bit early to say if they will be number 3. Remember there are other parties too especially MQM.
Accountant May 10, 2013 09:00am
very well said.
janjuah May 10, 2013 10:03am
DO NOT VOTE FOR IMRAN Jinah gave us a country and we sold it to others ..he sacrificed his life for this mission . Do we deserve a Naya Pakistan
Muhammad Awais May 10, 2013 10:57am
people have made their mind so sympathy is not a big thing for imran khan. on social media his party is getting great response.
Dharm May 10, 2013 11:34am
A though provoking analysis.
azhar May 10, 2013 11:49am
last election the sympathy vote went to current president from all political leaders!
F.Abassi May 10, 2013 02:11pm
Performance is the critiria not sympathy. The champion of Justice crumbled to the pressure of religious theocracy of the country. My question is who he can despenese Justice to society at large?
Bharat patel May 10, 2013 07:12pm
You have Imran Khan & some hope of honest leadership. Indians have no such hope because every politician is corrupt & cares only about his family & friends, no body cares about the country, otherwise India ,which is the 6 th most industrialized country in the world,would not have the worst infrastructure in the world.
Bharat patel May 10, 2013 07:29pm
I forgot to mention ' poverty'. Poverty &worst infrastructure in the world. '
ammad May 10, 2013 10:51pm
we wouldn't have loved him so much then
ammad May 10, 2013 10:53pm
time will prove that even if 7 million voters vote out of 15 million it's going to be huge difference
Jagjit Singh Sidhoo May 11, 2013 01:18am
Others to see this honesty
Jagjit Singh Sidhoo May 11, 2013 01:22am
Well said self preservation demands you vote for him