Election symbols are the most important part of a political party’s branding. It harks back to the use of coats of arms, banners, and insignia by various houses and dynasties during medieval times. Modern use of election symbols dates back to Thomas Nast, a political caricaturist who is credited with inventing the Republic Elephant and Democrat Donkey in the 19th Century United States of America. With time these symbols have become central to the democratic process in that country and it was this tradition that was quickly adopted by democracies elsewhere. The use of the crescent and the star by the Muslim League and the spinning wheel by the Indian National Congress in pre-partition India were examples of the use of political symbols in the subcontinent. Today the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) uses the symbol of a cricket bat, representing Imran Khan’s long association with the sport, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) employs the symbol of a sher (a lion or a tiger), reflecting strength and power, which was adopted after the erstwhile symbol of a cycle, was forcibly taken from them and allotted to another party in 2002. The Pakistan People’s Party historically used a sword, which was a play on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s first name. In 1988, however, the authorities refused to allow the party to continue with the symbol of the sword. Now PPP is synonymous with the symbol of an arrow (colloquially the “teer”). The fact that the authorities, often at the behest of Pakistan’s powerful militablishment, would deprive these parties of their preferred symbols forcing them to adopt new ones shows a tacit recognition of the power of these symbols and what they come to mean in the popular imagination.
Symbols can also evoke religious feelings. In 2002, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of religio-political parties, began using the symbol of a book (implying of course that they were struggling for the supremacy of the Quran). Some of these slogans have historical significance. The Awami National Party for example uses a lantern as its political symbol. This harks back to the 1965 elections where the lantern was the symbol of the combined opposition’s consensus candidate Fatima Jinnah. These election symbols take a life of their own in the public imagination and have become synonymous with party manifestoes. Lantern in the public imagination is indicative of a struggle for parliamentary democracy and federalism, which Fatima Jinnah’s campaign centered around.
Catchy slogans are a quintessential part of political communication and branding in the country. These slogans encapsulate the party’s ideology, promises, or critique of opponents. PTI’s slogan Tabdeeli (change) became synonymous with their 2018 election campaign, highlighting their call for transformation and naya Pakistan (new Pakistan). PPP famously deployed roti kapra aur makan (food, clothing, and shelter) to underscore its commitment to the ideology of Islamic socialism. PMLN’s messaging in the aftermath of the 2018 elections was focused on vote ko izzat do (Respect for the vote), underscoring their claim that the 2018 elections were rigged against them.
This political branding doubles down on the personalities of party leaders, especially the master signifiers of each party. These master signifiers often become the faces of their respective parties and play a crucial role in shaping the party’s brand image. For the PPP it is the Bhuttos, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto, who play a crucial part in their messaging. They are hailed as martyrs to the cause of democracy in Pakistan and this has become the central plank of PPP’s message, which is Bhutto Zinda hai (Bhutto is alive). Both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto have become Elvis-like figures for the party faithful.
Imran Khan, the leader of PTI, has utilised his image as the world cup-winning cricket legend and philanthropist to cultivate a charismatic and populist persona. PTI has formed a cult of personality, elevating Imran Khan to an almost infallible figure and Pakistan’s ultimate Mr. Clean. Such is the hold of his personality on his voter base that no allegation against him sticks no matter what the evidence. In many ways, Imran Khan is to PTI what Donald Trump is to the US Republican party. Notably, Imran Khan’s apotheosis as a political leader transcending that of other mortal politicians is the direct result of the party’s specific messaging around this cult of personality. His image is assiduously and quite deliberately crafted as one of an outsider challenging the powers of the status quo, a crusader telling truth to power, especially in the aftermath of his departure from office, which was branded as “regime change”. The regime change narrative is stuck. PTI derided the new government as imported hakumat (imported government) implying that the governing coalition was brought into power through foreign machinations, especially that by the USA thus playing on latent anti-Americanism rampant in Pakistani society. Nawaz Sharif is the face of PMLN but that is to be expected since the party is named after him. He is hailed as a successful prime minister who ultimately made Pakistan a nuclear power. His ouster from the government, thrice, is cited as an example of how the powers that be in the country have persecuted him because they consider him too dangerous to their vested interests. Hence Sharif is a martyr in his own right, sacrificed at the altar of power politics in the country. By doing so their respective parties have elevated Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif to the level of Bhuttos in their voters’ imagination.
The Weberian definition of Charisma is:
“A certain quality of an individual personality, by which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader … How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent to the purpose of definition.”
It is instructive to note the similarities between the PTI under Imran Khan and the PPP under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Both parties are charismatic parties. Bhutto used populist ultra-nationalism in the aftermath of the 1965 war to play on the discontent of the Pakistani people. Charismatic parties deploy public messaging that is- as stated above- personality-focused. Hence the emphasis on the Bhuttos and in the case of PTI, Imran Khan.
During election campaigns, political parties in Pakistan employ a host of different strategies to connect with supporters and to mobilise them. These include public rallies, door-to-door canvassing, and targeted advertising. Parties invest in designing evocative campaign materials, banners, billboards, and posters featuring party leaders, slogans, and symbols. The use of music and entertainment elements is the newest trend in Pakistani politics, popularised primarily by the PTI. Almost every political party has its anthem, which is sine qua non for modern political campaigning in Pakistan. These anthems encapsulate the aspirations of the leadership of each political party. PPP’s dilan teer bija (arrow to your heart), a song in Balochi that was recorded in a makeshift studio in Lyari underscores PPP’s struggle for the emancipation of the poor. PTI’s song Banay ga naya Pakistan (there shall be new Pakistan) was sung by popular folk singer Ataullah Esa Khelvi and tells the story of coming progress and prosperity in the country after Imran Khan came to power. PMLN’s catchy Punjabi song Mian de Narray Wajn gay appeals to the Punjabi sensibility underscoring the bond that the Sharif brothers have with Punjab. Music serves to electrify the voter base.
Negative campaigning, which involves the criticism and discrediting of opponents, is highly prevalent in the country’s politics. Parties engage in mudslinging especially around alleged corruption, highlighting real and perceived weaknesses or controversies surrounding rival candidates or parties often bordering on slander and libel. PTI has particularly excelled in negative campaigning having branded its political opponents as corrupt crooks or chors (thieves) and in doing so has made corruption the key issue around which it mobilises its base. Other parties use emotive appeals to religion, most recently in 2018 when the doctrinal dispute over Khatme Nabuwat (Finality of prophethood) was utilised by several political actors who presented themselves as Khatme Nabuwat ka mujahid (warrior of Khatme Nabuwat) as opposed to what they described as sinister political opponents out to destroy the religious and moral fabric of the nation.
Pakistan’s ethnic diversity also plays a key role. Political parties often tailor their branding and communication strategies to appeal to specific regional and ethnic constituencies. They emphasise local issues, cultural symbols, and linguistic preferences to establish a strong connection with voters in different regions. The multifarious centrifugal tendencies thus find traction amongst voters and supporters in provinces that feel that they are on the periphery of the Pakistani political milieu. In response to this, PPP for example points out that it was instrumental in the passing of the 18th Amendment, which devolved powers to the provinces. Most of the regional parties tailor their message around grievances, real and imagined, that the smaller provinces, ethnicities, and linguistic groups have against the center. Federalism in Pakistan is a contested issue and it is hardly surprising that this finds a place of prominence in parties’ political messaging.
Political parties employ various print, electronic, and digital platforms, to disseminate their messages and engage with the public. Traditional media outlets such as television and newspapers still hold significant sway, particularly in rural areas. However, social media platforms have gained immense popularity, providing political parties with direct access to a wider audience. Parties have embraced social media to disseminate their policies, counter opposition narratives, mobilise supporters, and rally public opinion. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have provided political parties in Pakistan with direct access to a vast audience. Parties utilise these platforms to engage with supporters, share their policies and achievements, and mobilise public opinion. Parties like PTI use interactive content, including videos, and live streams, to encourage participation and foster a sense of community among their followers. Almost every party now employs a full-time social media team especially on Twitter to make and propagate Twitter trends around their messaging. Such is the power of mobilisation through social media, that social media is usually the first casualty in any crackdown on political opposition.
Social media enables political parties to disseminate information rapidly and directly to a wide audience without relying solely on traditional media outlets. Parties can bypass traditional gatekeepers and communicate their messages, events, and policy announcements in real time. This allows them to respond quickly to current events and shape the narrative surrounding political developments. Social media has proved to be an effective tool for political parties to mobilise supporters and volunteers at the grassroots level. Parties utilise online platforms to coordinate protests, rallies, public meetings, and door-to-door canvassing efforts. They create online groups and networks where supporters can actively participate, share campaign materials, and organize events. Trending is everything. Social media offers political parties a platform to counter opposition narratives and respond to criticism in real time. Parties can quickly address allegations, debunk misinformation, and present their side of the story directly to the public. This allows them to shape public perception and mitigate the impact of negative campaigns by rival parties. Social media thus is the ultimate political battleground of ideas, a veritable marketplace, where each party is competing for public attention. Narratives are built and dismantled in cyberspace now and this is where the political spin-doctor has to be most savvy. The message has to resonate for it to be a success and the spin doctors have to be in step with the latest public sentiment for that to happen.
Social media platforms have a significant impact on the youth demographic in Pakistan. Political parties recognise this and actively engage with young voters through social media messaging. They tailor their messages, content, and communication styles to resonate with the interests and concerns of the youth. This demographic- now 65 percent of Pakistan’s population- is seen as influential in shaping electoral outcomes, and parties vie for their support through targeted online campaigns. Pakistan’s median age according to the UN is 20.2 years, a whole decade less than the global median age. The wrong message to such a young populace can potentially have disastrous consequences, as we saw on May 9. Social media platforms provide political parties with a valuable tool for monitoring public sentiment and gauging the response to their policies and initiatives. Parties track public discussions, comments, and shares to gather insights into public opinion and adjust their strategies accordingly. This real-time feedback allows them to stay connected with the pulse of the electorate and make informed decisions. Parties like PTI have also engaged with social media influencers and celebrities to amplify their messages and reach a wider audience. Collaborations with popular figures from various fields enable parties to tap into their followers’ networks and leverage their influence to promote their campaigns and agendas.
Modern political mobilisation is all about branding and strategic communication. Most of Pakistan’s political parties have wizened to the idea, albeit belatedly but in the age of social media, a well-crafted communications and branding strategy makes all the difference. Nevertheless, while social media has opened up new avenues for political mobilization, there are challenges and risks associated with online platforms, such as misinformation and echo chambers. The digital landscape will continue to shape political mobilisation and offer new possibilities for engagement, participation, and democratic processes. Strategic communication in political branding is essential for building a party identity, connecting with voters, managing the reputation of the leadership, mobilising supporters, engaging with media, adapting to digital platforms, and influencing policy debates. In many ways, the modern political party is the equivalent of a corporate brand and has to be marketed similarly, through clever and pithy messaging. Communications and public relations, therefore, are the most important functions in the success of a modern political party and the political parties have responded to this need by hiring communications experts and spin doctors who craft the narrative and propaganda of these political parties in line with the message that they want to resonate with the people. 2023 is the election year and it will be a very busy time for their communications and PR teams. Eventually, the success of any party will indubitably be linked to their ability to propagate their political message. There are pitfalls as mentioned above. Pakistan’s unique political landscape is susceptible to negative messaging and campaigning. If the youth are riled up with sectarian or ethnic separatist calls, for example, it can lead to an unmitigated disaster. Therefore great responsibility rests on the shoulders of the communications and PR teams of the political parties to ensure that their political platforms are not misused. Otherwise, it would give the powers that be a ready-made excuse to crack down on political parties, as we have seen happening over the past few years in Pakistan. For communications and PR companies, political branding and messaging can be a whole new vertical. As democracy takes root, we are bound to see mushroom growth in communications and PR companies that will focus on politics and lobbying, as is the case in many of the world’s leading democracies, especially the United States of America. Political spin doctors and PR gurus are likely to be in high demand in Pakistan in the future.