March Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

There are a few bright spots even in the dullest of campaigns. And the 2008 elections were certainly duller than most. With the fear of terrorism, the widespread belief that the results would be manipulated and the pall of gloom hanging over the nation after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, public campaigning was limited. For those of an aesthetic bent, however, that may have been a hidden blessing, as it forced the creative hand of the political parties, compelling them to campaign in non-traditional ways. If there is any thing the February 18 elections will be remembered for, it is for changing the way campaigns are conducted in Pakistan.

If there was any correlation between the quality of newspaper advertisements and results in the polls, PML-Q would have had a landslide victory on February 18. Realising that the Punjab remained the heart and soul of the electoral landscape, the PML-Q concentrated its efforts on belittling the PML-N, its main opponent in the province. In a savagely funny ad campaign that was both cruel and clever, the PML-Q bought space in all the major Urdu newspapers, publishing two photos of Nawaz Sharif at the graves of Zia-ul-Haq and Benazir, two leaders whose political philosophies were complete opposites. Underneath the photographs, were the Sharif quotes, “I will complete Zia-ul-Haq’s mission” and “I will complete Benazir Bhutto’s mission.” The ad then wondered aloud if Nawaz Sharif had any mission of his own.

The election results, however, showed that the voters may not have taken the message of the advertisement to heart as the PML-Q plummeted to defeat, largely at the hands of its arch-nemesis the PML-N. However, the party’s admen managed to find a way to spin the results into a resounding victory. In an ad published in most national newspapers after the elections, the PML-Q celebrated that it had received 7.6 million votes in the country, claiming that it was of little consequence that those votes did not translate into many National Assembly seats.

Election season also saw the debut of SMS campaigning. Political parties used the ubiquity of mobile phones to urge subscribers to vote, making sure they knew which symbol they should be marking. Shaikh Rashid Ahmed of the PML-Q and Khushbakht Shujaat of the MQM were particularly successful in getting their message across to voters through SMSes. None of the major parties, however, were willing to divulge where or how they gathered the comprehensive lists of cell phone numbers.

Far more feisty were the SMSes, usually anti-government in nature, that were making the rounds in the month before the elections. The provenance of these messages, which distilled opposition to the PML-Q and President Musharraf in a pithy sentence or two, is not known but they were circulated widely. Although most of these messages are too rude for publication, some of the more family-friendly ones managed to be both humorous and angry. Voters were informed that voting for the PML-Q would mean being a nobody (Yeh sher hamara hero hain, Cycle sab ke sab zero hain), embracing certain death (Cycle par mohar lagaein, Apni moat ko yaqeeni banain), and even guaranteeing entry to hell (teen log jannat main dakhil na hon ge: shirk karnay wala, waldain ka na farmane wala, cycle pe mohar lagane wala. Faisla aap ke haath main hai).

The election campaign also marked the first sustained use of advertisements on private TV channels, with the PML-Q producing the most ads. According to research carried out by the Centre for Civic Education Pakistan, a total of Rs.244.75 million was spent by the political parties to buy a total of 169 hours of advertising space on both PTV and the private channels. Most of this airtime was bought by the PML-Q, which spent Rs.175 million to purchase 105 hours of ad space.

The PML-Q ads did a better job of illustrating the widespread unpopularity of President Musharraf than any number of foreign opinion polls could. Aware that its chief patron was now a major liability, the King’s party did not mention the president in any shape or form. Instead, it harkened back to the nation’s founder, interspersing speeches by Jinnah with declarations that “Quaid-e-Azam’s mission is the Muslim League’s mission.”

Advertisements produced by the PML-N clearly showed that Nawaz Sharif was a man on a mission. He urged voters to “send a message to all those forces” who had plunged Pakistan into an economic crisis, fostered terrorism and silenced an independent judiciary. Symbolised as a lion, the PML-N ads asserted that Sharif was the true champion of the poor, a free media and the judiciary. They also pointed out supposed achievements of the Sharif era, including economic growth, development and a thriving media.

By far the least substantive of the television ads came from the PPP, which chose to focus on personality rather than politics. Most of their ads included snippets of Benazir’s final rally at Liaquat Bagh, with her intoning, “Bhutto is not dead! Bhutto is alive.” Although Benazir may have been talking about her father, the inference was clear. The mantle of martyrdom has now been passed down a generation. Another PPP ad tried to create sympathy by using Benazir’s eldest son Bilawal, who talked about his mother’s mission and urged the people of Pakistan not to let that mission die with her.

The MQM, perhaps because their support is limited to urban Sindh, did not pursue a national ad campaign. Instead, they sought the votes of a constituency never before acknowledged in Pakistani politics. A billboard in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, promising the citizens of Karachi ‘Khushali’ if they voted for the kite, featured the unmistakable image of a marijuana leaf.

The use of new media for campaign purposes, however, may spell the end of more traditional methods of electioneering. The political pop song, a vital tool in a party’s arsenal since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hit rock-bottom in 2008, with uninspired songs and lyrics being the order of the day.

The PPP, for one, didn’t bother coming up with a new song. Instead, it recycled Shahbana Noshi’s classic ‘Dilan Teer Bijan’ from 1988. The choice was somewhat understandable given the song’s indelible association with Benazir Bhutto and her euphoric campaign of 1988.

Less forgivable was the decision of the MQM to appropriate wholesale, the tune and melody of ‘Dilan Teer Bijan,’ with amended lyrics by Tehmina Sardar, for their song, ‘Sab Mil Ke Bolo Jiye, Zara Jhoom Ke Bolo Jiye Altaf Hussain Rehbar Hai.’ This came on the heels of the party’s slogan which simply translated the PPP’s slogan of Peace, Progress and Prosperity into Urdu, coming up with Amn, Tarraqi, Khushali.

The sole PML-N song for the 2008 elections was also a disappointment, as it used 1980s-style Bappi Lehri big beats, complete with synthesisers, trumpets and horns, with the constant repetition of the refrain ‘Purey qaum ka eik he naara/ Sher hamara.’ Meanwhile, there were no PML-Q songs available in the market.

With no signs that the popularity of the private media is ebbing, the time-honoured methods of campaigning may soon take a backseat to negative ads, humorous text messages and perhaps, in five years time, internet-based electioneering. Although official financial reports on the money spent by the candidates have yet to be released, there is no doubt that the recent elections were, by far, the most expensive in the country’s history. With television and print advertising expected to grow, the cost of campaigning should continue to rise.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.