VITRIOL and mudslinging have become essential components of Pakistani politics, especially in the current campaign season; some of the election advertisements deployed by mainstream parties on TV channels have been used to launch scathing attacks on opponents. In fact, it appears as though Pakistani candidates are taking a leaf out of their American counterparts’ book, as US campaign ads can be notoriously vicious.

Presumably due to the high costs involved, it is mostly the three large parties — the PML-N, PTI and PPP — that have launched election ads on TV (though one was surprised to see ads running on prime time promoting Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek candidates). While all the ads are not negative, and the PPP has largely focussed on highlighting its ‘achievements’ along with taking swipes at its main opponents, the ads of the PML-N and PTI targeting each other are particularly vitriolic.

In one PML-N ad, PTI chief Imran Khan thunders in the background, as innocent little children watch glued to the screen. The ad contains sound bites of Mr Khan hurling threats at his political opponents. “I curse such a parliament,” he is heard saying in a particularly memorable, and controversial, quote of his, as slick, selective editing creates an image of a man fond of chaos and disorder. In the end, a female voice sombrely asks: “Do you want to place your children’s future in such hands?” And then … the clincher: an emphatic thappa [stamp] on the PML-N sher [lion, the party’s election symbol].

Clearly someone in the PML-N camp has been studying the 2016 US presidential campaign very carefully. Scaremongering and negativity are widely used in US campaign ads, and the 2016 campaign was particularly vicious. In fact, the above-mentioned ad seems to be directly inspired by a Hillary Clinton ad targeting then candidate Trump: clips of Mr Trump are played showcasing the then businessman at his worst, with little kids watching. Trump uses four-letter words and appears to condone violence in his sound bites. In the end team Hillary also asks, what example will such a candidate set for our children?

Pakistani candidates seem to be taking a leaf out of their American counterparts’ book

Despite Ms Clinton’s dire warnings, Donald Trump still managed to romp to victory.

Coming back to Pakistani election ads, in another PML-N clip a man in a rural setting, whose father is suffering from a severe cough, says he is taking the old man to Punjab for a check-up. “I was fooled once,” the young man says, “InshaAllah I won’t be fooled again. I’ll go back to Bannu and stamp on the sher,” implying that public health services in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under the PTI administration were inadequate.

The PTI is not far behind. In one of its ads, images of JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Asif Zardari and the Sharif brothers are flashed on screen, with Imran Khan commenting that “they never get enough,” implying that the greed of his opponents is insatiable. The ad closes with a predictable message: ballay pay nishan [stamp on the ‘bat’, the party’s election symbol].

In another PTI production, clips of Shahbaz Sharif promising an end to loadshedding in two years are played. Then a man, suffering during a power breakdown, comments: “Bhai there is no electricity,” promising that he won’t be fooled again as the ad begins to show KP’s hydropower projects.

While TV campaign ads have been appearing for the last few election cycles, it was in the 2013 polls that parties started deploying ads on television in a big way, say scholars.

In a 2015 research paper by Noshina Saleem, Mian Ahmad Hanan and T. Tariq titled Political Advertisements & Voters Behaviour in 2013 General Elections of Pakistan: Exposure vs Impact Analysis, the researchers say that “Pakistani political parties dynamically took refuge in the electronic medium for bridging the gaps and conveying information.” They add that negative campaign ads were also seen during the 2013 campaign as “lots of mud-slinging was observed in the advertisements by all three political parties [PML-N, PTI and PPP] that led to scepticism among voters.”

As for the impact of such negative ads, the researchers say scholarly opinion is divided as “the first approach states that negative advertisements might lead to a backlash in terms of voter’s turnout instead of impacting positively,” while as per the second approach, “one remembers an ad with more convenience due to them being negative, ultimately increasing the vote bank.”

Asked to comment on the negative ads produced by political parties, Muddassir Rizvi, associated with the Free and Fair Election Network, says that “I wouldn’t say that the ads are based on negativism but they essentially reflect the election and political strategy of advertising political parties. If a political party is more forward-looking in its campaign strategy, it reflects its attempt to win new voters, convince fence-sitters to vote for it. But if a party is only critical of its opponents and not clearly telling voters what it would do once in power, it may not substantially add numbers to its existing support.”

Mr Rizvi feels it is difficult to predict how large an impact such ads will have on the voter, especially as local issues impact citizens rather than political parties themselves. “Pakistani voters are as smart as they can be in any advanced democracies. They generally make their decisions on the basis of local-level realities, communal interest and who can best serve that interest. The party, in most cases, if at all, is the last determinant for a majority. Whether or not these ads will win new voters or help them [the parties] retain their existing support will only be clear once we see the outcome on July 25.”

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2018