Why electoral symbols are important for political parties

Seemingly peripheral, electoral symbols play a crucial role in keeping voter base united and also bear fruit post-elections.
Published January 24, 2024

With the February 8 general election roughly two weeks away, the PTI will be contesting the polls without a common electoral symbol after being stripped of its iconic ‘bat’.

Despite the party’s best efforts, its candidates will be competing in the polls as independents, each having a separate symbol, and that’s because the Supreme Court upheld the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to revoke their long-held symbol, which held additional value due to party founder Imran Khan’s cricketing roots.

The verdict has also resulted in the party losing out on reserved seats for women and minorities.

Resultantly, the PTI has alleged that revoking its ‘bat’ will cast a shadow on the freeness and fairness of the election, as its candidates would be vulnerable to horse-trading.

Let’s take a look at the significance of electoral symbols and the challenges which the PTI faces in the Feb 8 polls.

What is an electoral symbol?

Electoral symbols — unique pictorial identifiers — are handed out by the ECP to political parties and candidates before polls so their voters and constituents can easily recognise them.

Parties usually have long-standing symbols, which, for the PTI, was the ‘bat’, referencing PTI founder Imran Khan’s past as a celebrated former captain of the national cricket team.

The symbols appear on ballot papers, with voters able to put a stamp on their symbol of choice. The ballot paper also has names but with the country’s literacy rate at under 40 per cent of the 241 million population, pictures are really important for unified recognition.

Further, a majority of the constituencies are in rural areas where the literacy rate is around 50pc, according to the economic survey of 2022-23.

The election process involves thousands of candidates and dozens of political parties and symbols. A single ballot paper has a long list of options for voters.

A total of 150 symbols have been assigned to political parties and another 174 were up for grabs by independent candidates for this election.

Other popular electoral symbols include the ‘tiger’ for the PML-N, the ‘arrow’ for the PPP, the ‘kite’ for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan, the ‘lantern’ for the Awami National Party and the ‘book’ for the the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl to name a few. A full list of all electoral symbols allotted to political parties for this year’s election can be accessed on the ECP’s website.

In addition to this, the election commission has also allotted a range of various symbols for independent candidates.

Why was PTI’s symbol revoked?

In December, the ECP had stripped the PTI of its electoral symbol on technical grounds that it had not held intra-party elections, a prerequisite for any party to take part in the Feb 8 vote.

The party had challenged that ruling in the Supreme Court, which had ruled against it on Jan 13. The ruling had left lawyers and political experts in disbelief, terming the apex court’s decision a “blow to fundamental rights”.

In addition to Imran’s legal troubles, his party now no longer has a single electoral symbol to rally behind. Instead, each of his hundreds of candidates has been given separate symbols from the independent symbol list — including ‘donkey cart’ and a ‘bowl’.

That means confusion for his voters and also extra costs to produce separate campaign material, such as banners, for each candidate.

The PTI has, for now, also lost its registered status with the ECP, which means that its candidates’ bloc will not be eligible for reserved seats handed out to political parties.

There are 70 seats reserved for women and religious minorities in the National Assembly, given to parties in proportion to the number of their candidates winning elections. This provides a boost to party positions in parliament.

Parallels with PPP

The predicament the PTI finds itself in today is not unique. Political observers have compared the situation to what befell the PPP in the late 70s.

The ‘sword’, ‘plough’ and ‘scales’ were three symbols deleted from the list of prescribed election symbols by ex-military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq after the 1977 general election.

The ‘sword’ was the election symbol of the PPP, headed at the time by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, while ‘plough’ was the election symbol of an amalgam of politico-religious parties named as Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Jamaat-i-Islami, which was part of the PNA in 1977, had contested 1970 polls with ‘scales’ as its election symbol.

Analysts believed that the primary target was to remove the ‘sword’ from the list, but other symbols were also taken out as a balancing act and just to prove that it was not a one-sided action. After the ‘sword’ was taken away, the PPP had chosen the ‘arrow’ as its electoral symbol — something that it has stuck to since then.

In August 2002, the party had formed a separate entity, PPP-Parliamentarians (PPPP) to meet the requirements of a decree issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf. A law was framed to bar former prime minister Benazir Bhutto from holding a party office and the new political entity was a bid to avert the imminent threat of losing the chance of contesting the elections.

In 2013, the party had contested the elections on the PPPP platform under the symbol of the ‘arrow’ while the PPP was allotted ‘two swords’.

In 2018, after 41 years, the PPP succeeded in reclaiming the ‘sword’ as its election symbol, but only as a political tactic to not allow any rival to get the symbol. The PPP is still going to contest the upcoming polls with the ‘arrow’ electoral symbol.

Being ‘symbol-less’ opens door for halal horse-trading

The PTI attempted to circumvent the loss of the ‘bat’ by looking to forge an alliance with its splinter PTI-Nazriati group to use the ‘batsman’ symbol — the closest one to its first-choice ‘bat’ — for its candidates.

In no time, the ECP countered and barred returning officers from allotting election symbols of a party to the candidates of another party — a move that was unnecessary as the PTI-Nazriati denied allowing any other group to use its electoral symbol anyway.

The chief concern expressed by the PTI after losing the ‘bat’ is horse-trading, which is not a new phenomenon in Pakistani politics and typically becomes a talking point every time there is a crucial vote being taken by the National or provincial assemblies.

Parliamentary and political experts also believe that the PTI may not be able to control its members in the upcoming assemblies as the defection clause, Article 63-A, would not apply to them.

They say that such members, even if they remain loyal to their party and do not join any other other within three days of the notification of their victory, will be considered as independents throughout the five-year tenure of the assemblies.

Lawyer Jibran Nasir, himself an independent candidate, had pointed out these concerns while reacting to the apex court’s decision upholding the ECP’s decision to revoke the PTI’s symbol.

“All those PTI-affiliated independents who will win, will be notified by the ECP as independent winners and under the Constitution would be free to join any party.

“Meaning a candidate who might win with the support of PTI voters can under duress, influence or for personal gains join PML-N or PPP post-elections. This will allow for ‘halal’ horse-trading,” he said.