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Can sympathy swing votes?

May 09, 2013

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.