Pakistan Elections 2013: Imran Khan Came, Saw, but did not Conquer

29 May, 2013    ·   3953

Anu Krishnan deconstructs the reasons behind the party's defeat in the aftermath of the elections

The performance of the Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in the recent Pakistan elections contradicted much of the predictions that its campaign had prompted. PTI leader Imran Khan was widely touted to be Pakistan’s next Prime Minister, with the ability to upset the vote banks of other prominent candidates. What are the reasons the expectations were thwarted? Why couldn’t Imran Khan live up to the hype?

An Overiew of the PTI's Show and Believed Prospects
In the provinces, the PTI swept Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by winning 34 seats, but failed to be the victor in Punjab, which accounts for about 60% of the electorate. PTI could only bag 24 seats in Punjab as opposed to the 214 secured by PML-N, and marked a poor show in the rest of the provinces as well. PTI won 17% of the votes in the National Assembly, securing 28 seats.

The PTI’s performance this year is certainly ahead of 2002 and 2008. It failed to make any impact on the electorate in 2002 and boycotted the general elections in 2008. Since then the PTI has been engaged in massive rallying and mobilization of the youth, which was  supposed to work in the PTI’s favour.

The PTI’s big show has been in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the incumbent Awami National Party (ANP) was its major opponent. The Tehreek-e-Taliban’s streak of violence targeting secular parties, which include the ANP before the elections, led to its defeat, and facilitated the PTI’s victory. The PTI was thus chosen as the best possible alternative in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is embroiled in militant attacks and Taliban insurgency. Imran Khan’s Pashtun ethnicity also appealed to the Pashtun majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Some of the chords that were supposed to strike with the public were the good use of social media, the party’s strong opposition to Pakistan’s US alliance and pledges to end American drone strikes in Pakistan. Social media in particular was expected to rally supporters for the PTI. Indeed, the PTI’s website was one of the top visited websites in Pakistan. Facebook and Twitter were rampantly used to ensure votes. The lowering of the voting age to 18 in 2002 and active mobilization of the youth were expected to give Imran Khan an edge over the others. Imran Khan received a 70% approval rating, in the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project conducted last year. The PTI’s prospects were thus luminous.

In addition, the campaign injuries sustained by Imran Khan a few days before the polls and the sympathy waves that poured in were also supposed to facilitate the PTI’s win.

What went wrong for Khan and the PTI?
Imran Khan’s trump card was the social media. Social media has certainly risen as a powerful tool of democracy in the recent times, but its role in stimulating electorates has been minimal. The PTI is a case in point. Few Pakistanis enjoy Internet access; Pakistan has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world. Only a portion of them engage in political discussions which enable them to make electoral decisions, of which only a few actually vote or hold the right to vote. Given these realities, to be carried away by the social media’s possibilities proved to be the PTI’s undoing.

The fixation with social media and young voters also meant that the PTI failed to reach the grassroots of Pakistan, for whom social media hardly matters.
Another reason is the fact that Imran Khan never outlined a promise or a policy that would help Pakistan recover from the country’s economic failure. That Imran Khan is a hitherto untested leader added to this dilemma and the PTI’s defeat. The specific factors that facilitated PTI’s victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa clearly couldn’t achieve the same results around Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif’s victory in the decisive Punjab results from the fact that he appealed as a competent businessman who would lift the people up from their economic drudgery in Punjab.

The Larger Picture
However, the results clearly mark a surge in the PTI’s performance in comparison with its lackluster and negligible performances in the previous election in 2002.  The increase in the voter turnouts is also being attributed to Imran Khan, with the younger population being more enthusiastic about elections this time. The party has also emerged as one of the leading opposition parties.

Even though social media couldn’t propel the PTI into being the big winner, it has helped the PTI make sufficient advancements. But the PTI’s electoral performance validates the fact that in Pakistan, predictions can easily be proved wrong. The larger message is that developing countries should not overestimate the possibilities of social media, until it penetrates deep into the roots of its rural populations as well.