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The virtual vote

May 15, 2013

IN those heady first days of the Arab Spring, it was the internet that mattered most.

At the centre of an uprising that would eventually uproot a dictator of decades was a tech-savvy Google employee: with his adroit manipulation of Twitter and Facebook, Wael Ghonim was able from his Cairo apartment to mobilise first hundreds, then thousands and then even hundreds of thousands of Egyptian youth.

Tahrir Square filled up and filled up again; a regime fell and finally, there were elections.

It was after the elections that Egypt’s new reality emerged. It was after the activists — mostly young, mostly urban, and all hopefully cheering democracy — brought down a dictator, after they got a date for elections, after the votes were counted, that the disappointment set in.

The Egypt that had been mobilised was different from the progressive Egypt that might have been imagined from the earlier resolve and the slogans and unity of the initial protesters.

The conservative Muslim Brotherhood candidate prevailed over the new democracy; Mohammed Morsi was elected president and Egypt set about putting into motion reforms that curbed the rights of women and minorities and that mixed religion and state.

The story is instructive in restive, post-electoral Pakistan. In the days before the elections, it was the newest party, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), that worked the hardest to get people excited about the polls.

In a country where actual campaigning was at best restricted to a province and a half, and at worst solely to television, the young, urban PTI activists took to Facebook and Twitter.

The youth that only barely remembered the last election and did not remember at all the claims of elections past of ‘historic’ status (say those that took place after 11 years of dictatorship or those that led to the secession of a chunk of the country) labelled this one as the most historic.

Their enthusiasm was infectious and their techniques virtual. They had Twitter to broadcast their verve and Facebook to spread their songs; by dominating them, they dominated the virtual world.

A bit of unplanned tragedy added to the dramatics of their strategy. Imran Khan fell and everyone on Twitter and Facebook seemed to fall in love. His hospital-bed speech went viral, invoking gushing emotions from hundreds, perhaps thousands. Suddenly, if you had a Facebook page or a Twitter account, you became part of a community, a conglomerate of ‘change’.

Domination on the screen began, imperceptibly, surreptitiously, to seem like domination in reality. The night before the elections, the plugged-in and Wi-Fi connected portion of Pakistan’s population seemed sure of victory. Their close cousins, television commentators, caught the fever; everyone forecast a victory for change.

On May 11, Facebook profile pictures of PTI’s young supporters ecstatically displayed their purple-stained thumbs, and tweets exhorted all to vote. The connected young did not go alone; they took their old grandmothers, their reluctant mothers and their busy fathers and they broadcast it all, documenting collectively the steps to the change they were sure would come.

Their banter was again virtual, zipping back and forth in a realm that cannot be caught or captured, but their words whetted and exhorted. When turnout was high, near a record 60pc, they congratulated themselves.

Change was coming, they proclaimed against the white of Facebook status messages; it was surely round the corner. Everyone they knew was voting for the Captain — everyone on Facebook, everyone on Twitter.

We now know the end to the story. Change did come, as it inevitably does with very election; Pakistan voted. However, it elected not the PTI but the PML-N. The party that prevailed was not the party that had dominated virtually, but the one that had dominated in less connected environs — the villages of rural Punjab, where few know what Twitter is and no one has ever heard of Facebook.

On the face of it, the exhortation seems obvious; a party mobilising a lot of young people must not mistake the virtual vote for the actual vote, or mistake the proliferation of Facebook statuses and tweets for the auguries of electoral victory.

That, indeed, is one message that can be gleaned from both the results of the vote and the baffled disappointment of those that must for the first time disentangle their virtual lives from their actual ones. There is, however, another, more crucial kernel in the result and it is one that Pakistan shares with Egypt.

It would seem that those who mobilise voters, create the fervour for exercising the franchise and manufacture virtually the climate of participation few in new democracies have experienced, stand only to lose at the ballot box itself.

In simple terms, those who generate the excitement for the election, raise their voices first, and can use their relative affluence and technological know-how to begin something, lack, by their very initiative, the numbers to prevail electorally.

The reasons are simple; public discourse is constructed by those that have the time, the freedom and the affluence to start something new.

In Pakistan, as in Egypt, it was the young urban voter, who wanted to transcend ethnicity, social class, ideology and vote simply for change. Many sections were mobilised by them, but did not ultimately vote for them.

It was a cruel lesson, and it has left the nation with many questions. Can a young democracy be an inclusive one, such that the votes of the rural and uneducated count the same as the educated and the urban? Is progress possible when those who start things, make voting cool and elections meaningful, are ultimately seen as the rebellious ‘others’ that must be kept out of the halls of power?

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.