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Not polls apart

Campaign watching provides few surprises

Not polls apart

Dear All,

Pakistan’s elections are only three and a half weeks away, yet campaign fever is not much in evidence. Part of the reason for this is that most major parties have been campaigning for the past five years anyway.

Imran Khan’s PTI had a slick, media savvy and very expensive looking campaign for the 2013 elections, and since then has continued in this style — mainly with the message that they are the only party who can effect meaningful change in the country. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has pretty much been running an election campaign ever since his family’s wealth and offshore accounts were revealed last year, and the courts became involved in the case. Since then, their narrative has been of victimhood.

The Sharif family has still not been able to clarify the money trail of their substantial assets in the UK, and the allusions to it have been contradictory. Nawaz Sharif as PM, used the state media to give his version of the facts, and seemed to suggest that his father’s wealth was the source of funding. This was later changed to the explanation that actually it was his sons’ business that had funded four flats in Mayfair (despite the fact that the sons were very young when the first property was purchased). The victimhood narrative has continued, and been reinforced with the slogan that a vote for the PML-N is a vote for the democratic process.

But now after Shabaz Sharif’s Karachi visit, it seems that the tone has changed as his focus was very much on urban development, and claims of efficient delivery of projects.

The PPP meanwhile continues campaigning with an assortment of messages. They emphasise that their leader is young, and promise change within a structure of no change — dynastic politics, feudal leaderships etc. In the last election, they, like ANP, were seriously handicapped as they could not campaign because of terrorist threats. So hopefully now their public gatherings can gain momentum.

The religious parties have the same agenda as always. Basically then, all the major parties seem to be asking for votes on the basis of personalities and victimhood. PTI’s victimhood narrative is that the last election was ‘stolen’ from them.

One thing that is very disturbing about this election has been the pressure tactics used on journalists. While tv channels are more or less all singing to the same tune.

But while so many voters indicate that they will vote for the PTI, “because we should give Imran Khan a chance”, it is still not clear if the PTI voter turnout will be as high as it was five years ago. Also, it will be interesting to see whether KP re-elects the PTI at the provincial level because KP has a track record of voting against the incumbent i.e. not re-electing anybody.

And as to what will happen at the national level, speculations and ‘analyses’ abound. Recent defections/departures of ‘electables’ has fed theories that this is part of an ‘establishment’ plan to provide support for the PTI to form a (weak) coalition government.

But even in the last election, there were expectations of a coalition, and instead Nawaz Sharif swept the polls.

It’s going to be a fascinating election to watch: not only to see how the electorate responds to Nawaz Sharif’s anti-‘establishment’ message but also to see how things pan out in Karachi now that the support strength of Altaf Hussain’s MQM has been battered.

And speaking of campaigns, nobody can be blamed for mistaking the chief justice’s working tours of the country as part of a campaign. Of course it is no such thing — but certainly looks and feels like it…

But one thing that is very disturbing about this election has been the pressure tactics used on journalists. While tv channels are more or less all singing to the same tune, one major newspaper is being severely squeezed and independent analysts critical of rightwing religious lobbies have been subject to harassment and intimidation. This bodes ill for truthful reporting and analytical perspectives.

And we must look at everything about the election through the lens of this media situation.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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