Global Editions

Social Media and Big Data in Politics

by Jawwad Rizvi

Growing role of social media and technology in Pakistani politics.

All politics is local,” the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill is usually credited with this particular catchphrase. However, this is a universal principle when it comes to electioneering, especially in Pakistan.

Politics and electioneering – how the system works in Pakistan

You don’t win elections by pushing abstract, philosophical ideals down an average citizen’s throat. You win elections by solving real, local problems. The average voter (read Aslam or Nasreen) will only be motivated enough to vote for you if you can do something for him (or her) personally. It’s as simple as that.

It’s a no brainer really. Most politicians in Pakistan get that. After all, they are professionals. They have been groomed since birth to play politics in one of the toughest countries of the world – Anatol Lieven, (a professor of International Relations and Terrorism Studies in the War Studies Department of King’s College, London, a former journalist and an author), after all refers to Pakistan, as “a hard country.” Newsweek famously referred to it as the “most dangerous country” in the world.  To most insiders, like Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan is one of the most resilient countries of the world. It muddles along regardless. “Life in this country is difficult whatever you do, so there is no room for weaklings,” as one banker with politics in his family background told Professor Lieven for his book.

In Brief

  • The use of social media in 2013 general elections in Pakistan was primarily limited to mass level dissemination of information vis-à-vis activities of the particular political parties.
  • The ever-growing telecom sector together with the advent of 3G/4G services in Pakistan in recent years has been revolutionizing the entire communication spectrum. The question is: Will this big data impact electioneering in Pakistan?
  • Except some prominent politicians and their political parties, the rest are either offline or have very weak online presence and this is despite big data success stories in elections in US and India. Will they try to jump on the bandwagon before the next general elections?

So an average politician in Pakistan needs to be visible to his people. At births, marriage celebrations and funerals. He needs to be accessible. He needs to be polite. He needs to be a diplomat. He needs to be strong. He needs to make sure he has personal clout and consistent access to influencers, enablers, gate keepers, rain makers, medicine men and Shamans – for he might be called upon to arrange a job, settle a turf war, organize an alliance, spring someone from jail (legally), send someone to jail, get a permit, move this file along, orchestrate that paperwork, make a personal phone call to move things along for someone, get this road made now, arrange that water pipeline by x-date, do this, or that, all in a course of the next fifteen minutes after greeting you. His only priority – listen, filter which problems he can solve today and for whom. This is his life 24/7, 365 days. He gets no time off for good behavior. This is his only chance to network. He is a politician canvassing all the time, rain or shine. When he is in power, when he is out. This is a culture of ‘quid pro quo.’

Professor Lieven seems to agree. “With the exception of the MQM and the religious parties, all of Pakistan’s ‘democratic’ political parties are congeries of landlords, clan chieftains and urban bosses seeking state patronage for themselves and their followers and vowing allegiance to particular national individuals and dynasties. Most of these individuals inherited their positions from their fathers or (more rarely) other relatives. Where new individuals gain political power, they invariably found political dynasties of their own, and seek to pass on their power, influence and followers to their sons (or occasionally daughters),” he writes in his book, ‘Pakistan a Hard Country.’

Dr. Mughees Ahmed concurs with Professor Lieven’s thesis as well. “Bradari (clan loyalty) has a very deep impact on political alignments of the people of Punjab,” he explains in his article for Journal of Political Studies,Voting behavior in rural and urban areas of Punjab.  “This factor gained more importance in the era of non-political governments. Non-party elections at the national and local level and weak political ideology further strengthened it. Elections of local bodies played their role to increase this trend also… Bradari seems to be stronger than political fidelity as far as motivations for voting behavior are concerned. Two elements are required for the victory of a candidate; one is the ticket of a major political party and the other is the favor of a major bradari,” he asserts.

“Generally in Pakistan and especially in Punjab bradaries are playing the role of pressure groups and providing a contesting atmosphere which is necessary for democracy,” Dr. Mughees continues. “It also fills the leadership gap because of the weakness of the ideological connections of the political parties. Non-political powers use this trend in their favor to expand and prolong their sphere of authority,” he contends.

“Political parties assure an individual citizen that his general interests will be safeguarded with minimum of personal involvement,” Dr. Mughees explains further, “and if the need arises, the citizens would participate actively. However in Punjab the same is ensured by groups and bradaries. Bradarism is more acute in rural and less in urban areas. It has worked as a source of alignment and realignment in the electoral process and resource allocation,” he concludes.

“55 percent of the respondents vote for the candidate, not for the party,” states another case study titled “Voting Behavior of People towards Different Political Parties in District Faisalabad, conducted by Durre Shawar and Muhammad Asim. “53.1 percent of the voters change their behavior due to the internal changes in the party,” they write further. “Caste system (clan identity) seems to be stronger than political loyalty now-a-days as far as motivations for voting behavior are concerned. Party affiliation determines voting behavior,” they state in conclusion.

Read more: Unlocking Big Data for Electioneering

Wooing the voters

Pakistan is an old fashioned country, steeped in centuries’ old traditions of hospitality, patriarchy and tribal values. Politicians like to connect with their constituents in deeply traditional ways when it comes to electioneering: in the long term, by creating visible symbols of their contribution to voters’ lives at national levels like building civic facilities, communication infrastructures and development projects e.g., road networks, motorways, airports, ring roads, metro networks, orange and green lines, flyovers, underpasses and bridges, inaugurating dams, power plants, schools, colleges and universities, not to mention hospitals, running ambulance services in major cities, providing employment opportunities in public sector for example, PIA, Railways, Pakistan Steel Mills, so on and so forth, introducing loan schemes for example, President and PM’s Rozgar schemes, cab schemes, tractor schemes, investing in food stamp programs and financial stipend programs like Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), providing subsidies on agricultural inputs like fertilizer, (Urea and DAP), and subsidies on food like sugar and flour.

On local levels, the politicians’ work in their constituencies by building and repairing roads and sewers. In the short term, right before the impending elections, they increase visits to their constituencies, also send in their aides, emissaries and envoys to canvass door to door, arrange public gatherings, political camps and corner meetings, organize reunions with tribal elders, set up Khabay (free food gatherings), coordinate Jalsay (Political rallies) and run advertising campaigns on electronic and print media. Regardless of party alliances, most prominent politicians always manage to win seats based on their personal following.

New technologies have also played its key role when it comes to connecting with their voter base. Many politicians maintain their personal websites on the internet, micro-blog on Twitter and Facebook and periodically get featured on TV talk shows and current affairs programs. They also “take advantage of short message service (SMS) packages offered by various cell phone companies,” and send mass messages “to the people in their constituency seeking their support in the elections.” Based on one Daily Times news report, according to rough estimates, “one billion short messages (SMS) were exchanged on a daily basis in the country when the election was drawing nearer.” They also run media campaigns – posters, banners and advertisements on the back of public transport like rickshaws, buses and private cars exhorting voters to support them in the coming elections. They also get party workers on motorbikes and four wheel drive vehicles to run around neighborhoods carrying party flags, banners and microphones canvassing and rallying their voters to support their candidacy come Election Day.

Predicting voter behavior and role of new technologies

Politicians seem to rely on traditional canvassing methods to woo and retain their voter base in Pakistan. They seem to be working on the principle of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as one team of researchers found in their study called ‘Political Advertisements and Voters Behavior in 2013 General Elections of Pakistan: Exposure vs. Impact Analysis. Their conclusions were, “voters’ loyalties for their respective political party were also an important factor that reduced the advertising influence” and that “there is no association between ‘advertising exposure’ and ‘advertising impact’ on voter behavior.” And that “there is no relationship between ‘information richness of advertisements’ and ‘existing political knowledge of respondents,’” so recent voting behavior still seems to suggest that majority of voters still voted based on clan loyalty or party loyalty. Advertisement campaigns managed to have virtually no impact on the voters’ decision making.


No wonder, analytical thinking and use of ‘big data’ to evaluate voter behavior and making decisions accordingly by their election campaign managers is an alien concept in Pakistan’s politics so far. It seems the politicians who were interviewed or provided a brief background for this story think that maintaining a social media presence on the internet is the extent and only use of technology in Pakistan. They don’t seem to be familiar with the term “big data” at all.

Pakistan’s culture also seems to support the theory of going with your gut instincts instead of using analytical reasoning to base your decision making on when it comes to spending your election campaign money. Politicians seem to prefer going with the personal touch instead of commissioning independent polls and surveys or commissioning ‘big data’ analytics to figure out how and where to spend their advertising budget to woo and connect with their voters.

Statistics also seem to support the politicians’ canvassing methods – they seem to work. Overall voter turnout in the 2013 elections was recorded at 55.02 percent according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This was one of the highest turnouts since the 1980s. Over 46.2 million people exercised their right to vote in the elections. The PML-N got the majority of votes (14.8 million) followed by the PTI (7.5 million), the PPP (6.8 million) and the MQM (2.4 million). Independent candidates picked up 5.8 million votes. The highest turnout was recorded at 84.77 percent in NA-191 Bahawalnagar. Another factor for such a high turnout could be the dismal performance of the past successive governments at the helm.

Regardless, ad hoc decision making instead of reasoned data analytics seems to work for the politicians in Pakistan. “Gut feelings are tools for an uncertain world,” says Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled ‘Instinct Can Beat Analytical Thinking,’ by Justin Fox. In Gigerenzer’s view, using heuristics, rules of thumb, and other shortcuts often leads to better decisions than the models of “rational” decision-making developed by mathematicians and statisticians. “They’re not caprice. They are not a sixth sense or God’s voice. They are based on lots of experience, an unconscious form of intelligence,” he asserts. “I’ve worked with large companies and asked decision makers how often they base an important professional decision on that gut feeling. In the companies I’ve worked with, which are large international companies, about 50 percent of all decisions are at the end a gut decision,” he further asserts. “But the same managers would never admit this in public. There’s fear of being made responsible if something goes wrong, so they have developed a few strategies to deal with this fear. One is to find reasons after the fact. A top manager may have a gut feeling, but then he asks an employee to find facts the next two weeks, and thereafter the decision is presented as a fact-based, big-data-based decision. That’s a waste of time, intelligence, and money,” concludes Gigerenzer.


Disclaimer: The statistics shown here are gathered from official and fan pages of different political figures on Facebook and Twitter

“The study of voting behavior in Pakistan is relatively scarce,” writes M. Javaid Akhtar Assistant Professor, Department of Gender Studies at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan in his article titled, ‘Elections of Pakistan and Response of Social Scientists: A Historiographical Survey of Theoretical Perceptions.’ “Only in countries, where elections have been conducted regularly and studied comprehensively, we find a mature tradition of voting behavior analysis,” he claims.

Read more: Harnessing the Power of Data

Social media and the use of big data in Pakistan

While the use of social media by a few political parties was witnessed and recorded to some extent during the 2013 general elections—especially by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)— big data so far has not attracted the attention of political players in Pakistan.

Primarily, the social media was used to spread the manifestos of the particular parties and to counter any controversy online. The age of big data is here and today we have examples of the effective utilization of social media and big data in electioneering from across the world particularly in the United States. “The 2008 Obama Presidential campaign made history,” writes Dr. Pamela Rutledge in an article titled, ‘How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign.’ She is a Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Faculty in Media Psychology MA and PhD programs at Fielding Graduate University. “Not only was Obama the first African American to be elected president,” she continues. “But he was also the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media as a major campaign strategy. It’s easy to forget, given how ubiquitous social media is today, that in 2008 sending out voting reminders on Twitter and interacting with people on Facebook was a big deal.  When Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, Twitter had only just started and there wasn’t even an iPhone yet,” she recalls. “Obama dominated the social media space because his team got how networks work,” she asserts further. “The real power of social media is not in the number of posts or Tweets but in user engagement measured by content spreadability.  For example, Obama logged twice as many Facebook ‘Likes’ and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets as Romney.  With his existing social media base and spreadable content, Obama had far superior reach,” she explains.

Waseem Akthar

“We did not get a chance to campaign properly in the by elections of NA-247 but wining the seat again is the result of MQM’s social media presence.”

Waseem Akthar

Obama’s 2012 election campaign was run by Jim Messina who managed to appoint Rayid Ghani as its chief data scientist. This was a stroke of genius as Ghani was an expert in data mining and machine learning in his previous life and had crunched numbers for big corporations. He hired an analytics department “five times as large as that of 2008 campaign,” and the rest as they say is history.

“The president’s campaign used an abundance of online and offline data in order to hyper-personalize messages and get the most bang for its buck in terms of outreach,” reports Derrick Harris for, in ‘How Obama’s data scientists built a volunteer army on Facebook.’

Essentially, as Ghani explained to Harris, the campaign was able to match up supporters’ friends against voting lists and determine how it should approach supporters to reach their friends. If someone was going to spread a message to 20 people, the campaign wanted to ensure they reached 20 people most likely to take action in some way. Because Ghani’s team had done so much work integrating its myriad data sets into a single view, it was better able to decide who could be most easily persuaded to vote for the first time, to donate money, to get active knocking on doors or perhaps even to switch sides. That it was coming from friends rather than the campaign was critical to the strategy’s success, too. “The more local the contact is,” Ghani said, “the more likely [people] are to take action.”

His job essentially was to make sense of huge amounts of data.  According to Ghani, the real advantage of data is “that it helps in using the resources at your disposal as efficiently as you can, which in the case of political campaigns is money,” he told Dawn’s Salman Haqqi in an article titled, Obama’s secret weapon in re-election: Pakistani scientist Rayid Ghani. “How data helps you, is it makes you more efficient and it helps you spend your money carefully and in the right way,” Ghani says. “You could pick up the phonebook and just start calling everyone, but you’ll either waste calls on people who are already going to vote, or on people who can’t be persuaded to vote your way. But with a data-driven approach, you can target those voters who are much more likely be affected by that call and pick up voters you didn’t have,” he explains. By discerning which voters are the most likely to be swayed, the campaign can then design its ad campaigns and alter its strategy for maximum effectiveness. It’s the smart-bomb method to political campaigning, the article concludes.

Narendra Modi’s election campaign is another case in point. And this did not relate to just social media alone as the data crunchers enabled the political parties and individuals in these countries to know the unknown and hidden patterns in big data too. “Since India’s Lok Sabha election results, news outlets have been debating why Congress lost so heavily to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” states an article on titled, ‘The First Prime Minister to use Big Data.’ “Some have suggested Narendra Modi’s focus on the economy was a decisive factor in his success, while others have argued that Modi’s emphasis on infrastructure development was a key reason. However, it is unanimously agreed upon that it was Modi’s combination of technologies – big data analytics and social media– that separated him from other candidates like Rahul Gandhi and was crucial to his victory. Whereas the latter has garnered considerable media attention, the former has remained somewhat unexplained as a factor in Modi’s success,” the article is surprised to find.

The exposé further enumerates the difficulties of big data analytics in a country like India. “What makes Modi’s use of big data so impressive is that it was both relatively new to Indian politics, and wrought with unique challenges. Take, for example, the size of the Indian electorate. With 814 million voters, in comparison to the USA’s 193.6 million and the UK’s 45.5 million, the sheer volume of data of India’s voting population was perhaps the largest obstacle. The second was the variety of data – India’s voter rolls in 12 different languages and 900,000 PDF’s amounting to 25 million pages made for a heterogeneous, non-uniform and deeply diverse information set. Finally, the veracity of the information was often questionable – one report noted that some voters were listed as 19,545 years old, and others a confounding 0 years old. Name overlapping (there are 327,000 women named “Sita” in Bihar alone) only further complicated the process,” the article notes.

Read more: Riding the New Wave of Data Science

Potential for big data analytics in Pakistan

Since 2013 the social media landscape continues to expand and grow exponentially in Pakistan especially with the advent of 3G/4G services which are rapidly revolutionizing the entire communication spectrum.

According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) by May 2016 total number of 3G/4G users in Pakistan reached 29.74 million as compared to 28.67 million in April 2016. As per PTA stats there are 133.4 million cellular subscribers and mind you we have an estimated population of over 180 million people.

The PTA data also shows mobile teledensity increased from 69.05 percent to 69.34 percent while Broadband subscribers increased from 31.6 million to 32.7 million during the same period.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) notes that the average cost of owning and using a mobile phone in Pakistan is PKR 222.41 ($2.21) and is the lowest in Southeast Asia, especially in the emerging telecom markets.

In this list of mobile costs, Sri Lanka is ranked as the cheapest market for using a mobile phone. The average monthly cost there is only $0.97. It is followed by Bangladesh with $1.42 and Iran with $2.01 average monthly cost. Thus, Pakistan secures the fourth position.

The cellular operators in Pakistan have made huge investments after 3G/4G spectrum auction in 2014 and this was not just in purchasing the spectrum license but also in upgrading the network, installation of new equipment and capacity building of the human resource.

A senior official of a leading cellular operator says despite all investments, full carpeted coverage of 3G/4G has not been completed yet. “The cellular industry is not providing basic data services to the users due to incomplete coverage so how can it use or sell users data to the others to conduct different studies?” he questions.

Comparing with Indian cellular industry, the official said once Pakistan was far ahead from the neighboring country but now it needs a couple of years to just catch up. Elaborating further, the official said the Indian cellular industry was selling good information and data particularly to farmers. “Indian farmers are using the information and data quite effectively while such services are yet to start in Pakistan.”

However, according to him the provincial government of Punjab has initiated a few projects on these lines which will prove helpful in developing the use of data which can prove multipurpose in future ranging from politics to development of agriculture sector.

According to Pakistan Advertisers’ Society (PAS), 35 percent of the smartphone users in Pakistan carry a low-cost phone (primarily for safety reasons), 68 percent of the smartphone users in Pakistan are on Android, 77 percent of smartphone users are just 21 to 30 years old, 60 percent of the Pakistani’s use more than one cell phone.

Kanwar Dilshad

“Indian Electronic Voting machine model can be adopted by developing paper trails as a parallel system in Pakistan.”

Kanwar Dilshad

It is in this backdrop, experts believe that there is great potential vis-à-vis the use of big data by political parties in elections and politics in Pakistan. They, however, argue that in order to gain true momentum in their campaigns on the basis of big data, the political parties will have to make an early start. They shouldn’t wait for the election year or an election announcement to make a start when it comes to big data analytics.

Though all political leaders do not have official accounts on Twitter or pages on Facebook, a glance at the stats pertaining to social media followers of key political players and their political parties reveals that there is huge potential in tapping into the power of data for political mileage since the online world is really connected and by exploring these connections the parties can gain valuable insights and make deep connections with their voter base.

As of July 15, 2016, PTI chief Imran Khan has over 3.9 million followers on his official Twitter account which are even more than the people who follow PTI on Twitter (over 2 million). Similarly the PML-N central leader Maryam Nawaz Sharif has more than 2 million followers on her official Twitter account. Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has over 1.3 million Twitter followers.

Similarly on Facebook, PTI has a strong presence with 4.3 million people liking the party page while Shahbaz Sharif alone has 1.3 million likes on his official page on Facebook.

Read more: From Gut Instincts to Data-Driven Decision Making

What do the political parties think of big data?

Traditionally, individual politicians and political parties in Pakistan use social media platforms to post and publish their political activities and to counter any controversy. Mostly these posts are about meetings and events they organize on a regular basis with followers expressing their reactions through comments and other options available. However, all it needs to take better advantage of big data and social media is a mere realization of significant insights which could be gained by employing analytics.

Farhan Virk, who voluntarily works for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, (PTI)’s Jhangir Khan Tareen social media team, says the concept of “social media” impact was introduced in Pakistan during the PTI sit-in in Islamabad when the party’s social media team ran five trends in a day. The trends were reaction on Indo-Pak issue which was popular and highlighted in the mainstream media. “This helped introduce the impact of social media in developing the public opinion,” he adds. Since then every political party and major politicians have established their social media teams.

However, Farhan says budgets for social media teams are very limited and can’t be compared with any of U.S. or Indian politicians’ teams. “The politicians spend hardly PKR 2 million for social media team out of which major chunk is spent on purchasing equipment and people (especially youth) usually work as volunteers,” he adds.

Farhan believes social media impact is developing in Pakistan and no doubt in future politicians will also use data analysis for their election campaigns.

Former Secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), Kanwar Dilshad is of the view that every country has its own dynamics. He thinks replicating U.S. or Indian voting systems in Pakistan is not really feasible. “United States’ system has evolved over 250 years, beginning from only 13 states to now over 50 states. It takes a year to successfully run a U.S. presidential campaign. The procedure of election is very complex as compared to Pakistan,” he adds.

According to Kanwar Dilshad, Ayub Khan had introduced the concept of basic democracy on the pattern of the USA when he was elected by 80,000 representatives as President of Pakistan.

ECP’s former secretary went on say that Pakistan was far behind in technology and election results were also tampered here. “If a complete electronic voting system, which is paperless, based on biometric identification of vote and based on machine counting, is introduced in Pakistan like it’s been done in India, than it will be easy to tamper with election results by just influencing the presiding officers. You would only need to get rid of the backup and replace it with tampered results in the system or the device on which such results are maintained,” he added.

Waseem Akthar

“TV media campaigns played an important role in the 2013 elections on which huge funds were spent while impact of traditional door to door electioneering was also crucial to win the elections.”

Pervaiz Malik

Quoting recent examples of tampering of election results, followed by recounting which was carried out through courts proceedings, Kanwar said if no paper trail was available then it would become easy to get the desired results by the powerful mafia who are involved in election business.

However, Kanwar Dilshad suggests that Indian Electronic Voting machine model can be adopted by developing paper trails as a parallel system. For this a modified indigenous system needs to be developed for voting purpose as in case of any conflict the voting could be checked out from the paper trails.

“Biometric verification is crucial and possible for making the voting process transparent,” he believes and gives examples of the re-verification of mobile (chip) SIM through biometric.

MNA Pervaiz Malik, who headed Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N)’s election campaign for Lahore in 2013 general elections, believes the understanding of the use of technology is improving with the passage of time. “While the ECP is introducing tech-based electoral reforms, the political parties are also looking towards technology to manage their affairs. The PML-N has also adopted technology in managing the party affairs.”

Pervaiz Malik adds, “We are aware of the workers’ activities because of the social media centers which have been established at every level. A centralized social media center manages to control activity of all four provinces’ social media teams while individual elected representatives, ministers and workers also manage their own online presence as well.”

“TV media campaigns played an important role in the 2013 elections on which huge funds were spent while impact of traditional door to door electioneering was also crucial to win the elections,” said Malik while explaining his party’s campaign strategy in the last elections.

Malik believes that in order to attract new voters, parties need to perform and deliver. “People want to get their issues resolved,” he adds.

Technology is integral to electioneering according to PTI Punjab Organizer Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar. “No politician can even think of contesting elections without using technology,” he asserts. “It’s a mere dream,” he says. You simply can’t run a campaign without technology.

Recalling his UK experiences of electioneering, he says that voters’ data with all of their bios, contact details and interests was available to them. This data was separated into different categories, mainly confirmed voters of party, confirmed non-voters and swing voters’ lists. “We worked on swing voters to convince them to vote for us. For this we called individual voters, messaged them, and conducted door to door campaigns to ensure their votes,” he reminiscences.

Similarly, such practices need to be applied in Pakistan, he stresses. Here, there are three main political parties, PML-N, PPP and PTI.

Each party need to focus on the swing voters. “We should be engaging them in the political process by getting them to vote on the basis of strong manifesto and the past performances of each party,” he says. However, this is a tall order indeed, in Pakistan as we do not have organized data available on the swing voters. For his part, PTI has organized a cell to collect this data. The swing voters are contacted through the same procedure as is used in UK, he declares.

On adopting the technology for casting votes, Sarwar believes that NADRA has one of the world’s best data collecting agencies. NADRA can streamline the polling process in just six months’ time by evolving a system for electronic voting. However, for this, all the political parties and ‘other stakeholders’ will is required for free and fair elections, he affirms.

Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar

“PTI has organized a cell to collect big data. The swing voters are contacted through the same procedure as is used in UK.”

Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar

Besides, non-existence of rule of law, ‘reward and punishment’ is also another reason for our polluted voting system, he declares.

Waseem Akthar, nominated for the post of Mayor for Karachi by Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) says his party has a well-organized setup of social media and data management.  “We have various committees, like elders’ committees, doctors’ committee, youth committee, students and many others. Similarly, we have various pages on social media network where both MQM supporters and others follow our party.”

MQM has adopted the use of timely data which resulted in the success of its candidates in by-elections held so far. “We did not get a chance to campaign properly in the by elections of NA-247 but wining the seat again is the result of MQM’s social media presence,” he said.

The party leader further says his party responds and engages with the followers who raise questions and concerns and responds to their queries irrespective of the fact they are the party’s voters or not. He, however, said most of the people in Pakistan were not as educated as in the U.S. so comparison of the U.S. and Pakistan in elections was incorrect. According to him, in Pakistan typical feudal system prevails in politics where people vote on the basis of clan, groups and caste etc., while many times people ignore the performance of the individuals and parties and even the corruption done by the elected representatives in the past.

Former Information Minister of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Qamar Zaman Kaira said the adoption of technology was dependent on societal development while comparison of Pakistan’s electioneering process with U.S. was completely incorrect. “This comparison with India is also incorrect to some extent as society there is more developed and democracy is mature while in Pakistan, political system and parties are fighting for their very survival.”

Still, both in U.S. and India, conventional methods of electioneering including public gathering, dinners and lunches, corner meetings and conventions etc., are held in the same way as in Pakistan. “However, it is a fact their societies are developed, especially in the case of U.S. where data on almost everything is available while in India proper democratic setup exists,” Qamar Zaman Kaira says adding “Parties in these countries have established strong cells which work on the use of technology to engage voters.”

Kaira went on say that the system and society were so developed in the U.S. and Europe that no political office holder can influence any person to do anything illegal in voting as compared to Pakistan where whole administration is used by the ruling governments for their desired results raising questions over transparency and fairness in elections.

Talking about the resources for political campaigns, Kaira believes no system exists for fund raising and donation. “Rather investors invest in the election in their candidates and in return get favors after winning,” he observed. Additionally, successive ruling governments abuse public resources during election campaigns through spending on media, and other activities while the opposition always has this disadvantage, he adds.

Waseem Akthar

“The use of the social media is first step towards the use of data and other technology to understand and evolve political campaigns accordingly.”

Qamar Zaman Kaira

Kaira admits that his party, PPP, was lagging behind in social media presence and use of technologies. Justifying it, he said political parties are mainly using the social media to abuse others while PPP doesn’t like to indulge in this exercise. However, he says, media wing of the PPP is working hard to create coordination and harmony among the various ranks so that social media can be used effectively in the next elections.

“The use of the social media is the first step towards the use of data and other technology to understand and evolve political campaigns accordingly,” says Kaira.

Read more: MOOCs on edX: A World of Unlimited Learning Opportunities

Sohail Waraich, a veteran political analyst who headed the election cell of Geo Television Network in 2013 general elections says PTI presence on the social media is the highest followed by the PML-N while PPP seems to be totally absent.

According to him strong middle and upper middle class supporters’ base is the reason behind PTI’s massive social media presence. However he went on to say this huge following of the PTI on the social media was not replicated in the results of 2013 general elections which were further reduced in all the by-elections held since then. “The reason behind this is that the middle and upper middle class seldom go out to vote but love to debate issues in their drawing rooms and on social media,” he said and added thus the vote of the PTI was less than the PML-N which was reflected in the establishment of the government.

“In real politics, votes and polling day matters. Those who manage to sensitize the voters, win the elections,” says Sohail Waraich.

Talking about holding debates on the pattern of the U.S. with the heads of the leading political parties on TV, he mentioned that the Geo Television network attempted to bring the top leadership for debate before polls and got PML-N to agree but other parties were not ready to do a live debate on TV. Giving the reasons, he said the parties’ heads in Pakistan dislike debating or answering on key issues on the airwaves. They also fear saying something wrong which could adversely affect their campaigns. So they avoid any mistakes before the elections.

“The ECP should make it mandatory for the political parties, through election code of conduct, so that such debates can start in Pakistan. Positive trend in Pakistan’s politics will start once such debates initiate,” he believes.

Jawwad Rizvi is Senior Economic Correspondent at The News, a leading English Daily.


Related posts


  1. Shamim Akhtar said:

    Sohail Waraich’s comment is interesting. These politicians could never face the public in a debate! 🙂

  2. Aqeel Abbas said:

    Article highlights the essential point that there is a big gap between a presence on social media and actual participation on Election Day.

  3. Javed Mir said:

    An excellent account of an emerging trend which could be a game-changer in Pakistani politics.

  4. munib said:

    Use of technologies in Pakistan’s politics??? Pakistan’s Political system is polluted with corruption, nepotism, family centeric, in such scenario why politicians will think to use modern technologies for electioneering when they know the trick of engaging the voters on polling day by providing them ‘Biryani’ a meal deal with pick and drop facilities….writer has made an effort to highlights the importance of use of data and technologies in electioneering, but I believe its long way to go for Pakistan….need to alter the whole system…

    • Shamim Akhtar said:

      Love your comment – Munib – why would the politicians need to use big data when there is ‘biryani’ – that’s the gist of Jawwad’s story too…big data not so big in Pakistan – only in India and USA…:D

      • munib said:

        Shahmim – Data itself is not big or small – its usage make it big or small – how big thinking is your mind makes a data huge and a small approach reduce the limit of it…..- about US and India – offcourse they dont have ‘biryani’ as its a Muslim dish 😉 It was dish of Muslim rulers in Indian sub-continent – so the Indian also does not have flare of ‘Biryani’ politics – so they work on Big data – Pakistani work on ‘Biryani’ politics with addition of sri-paaye, some times mangoes too 😀

        • Shamim Akhtar said:

          Bribery and corruption works every time in Pakistan. 😀 “Biryani” and “Sri-paaye” politics – I like it. Good one.

  5. Saleem Faisal said:

    Coverage is comprehensive but it should have touched upon the link between ethnicity and political mobilization.

    • rizwan said:

      excuse me – I guess you didn’t read the article….Rizvi has cited a few studies in this article linking ethnicity and political mobilization – Pakistanis apparently vote for “Bradari” …in fact, he starts the whole story with this point.

  6. Arsalan Ahmed said:

    An excellent account of an emerging trend which could be a game-changer in Pakistani politics.

  7. Shakeel said:

    Great insight. Especially the “Khabay” (free food gatherings) part.

    Really like this part of Jawwad Rizvi’s story:
    “On local levels, the politicians’ work in their constituencies by building and repairing roads and sewers. In the short term, right before the impending elections, they increase visits to their constituencies, also send in their aides, emissaries and envoys to canvass door to door, arrange public gatherings, political camps and corner meetings, organize reunions with tribal elders, set up Khabay (free food gatherings), coordinate Jalsay (Political rallies) and run advertising campaigns on electronic and print media. Regardless of party alliances, most prominent politicians always manage to win seats based on their personal following.”

  8. MudassarJ said:

    9. What Sohail Warraich said is true that tells the whole story. Neither of our politicians is answerable to public and doesn’t like to indulge in debate with workers or outsiders. They don’t like to respond on their social media accounts and this goes with everyone, even Maryam Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif have similar minds. They don’t train their voters on social media ethics and most of the times the account is run by secretaries and social media team which is highly unethical on their part. So when everything is fake there how can social media following turn into reality. What matters in Pakistan is the day of election. Else we need a very strong public education campaign prior running social media wings and comparing ourselves with US or UK.

  9. Sobia Nazir said:

    Ad hoc and VIP culture-type decision making – why would they need big data to make decisions?

Comments are closed.