Pakistan’s Decision to Vote


I can recall four different general elections in my lifetime, and it still baffles me as to what the voting behaviours of the Pakistani electorate truly are. What in our opinion is the political ideology that motivates people to vote and vice versa?

Here Cometh the Tiger

“Sher aaya, sher aaya,” is what I vaguely remember of the Pakistani general elections of 1997. People were profoundly enthralled by the party symbol that the Pakistan Muslim League (now Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz; PML-N) was allotted for the election ballot rolls. PML-N was allotted the party symbol that featured a ‘tiger’, while the contender Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) went with an ‘arrow’.

Election symbols trigger more of an emotional response from people, than party policies
Election symbols trigger more of an emotional response from people, than party policies could possibly do. The 43% illiterate population of Pakistan would only vote the picture that justifies their emotions.

Party symbols are used by the election commission to facilitate voting drives amongst the illiterate masses of the nation. To this particular demographic, party policies or ideologies do not matter as much as the symbolism. To them, a symbol featuring a tiger or lion relegated strength and propagated a meaning akin to victory. These people would vote for parties based on their perceived emotional affiliation with their election symbols rather than the central ideological concerns of such candidates.

Rock, Paper, Scissors and Tigers

A vast majority of the people voting in the general elections in 1997 voted for Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League only because they had developed affiliation to the party’s symbol of a tiger. Under-fed measly circus lions were paraded through the streets in support for the party. However, none of the voters truly understood or even knew of the party’s central objectives and concerns.

People look at a caged lion, paraded by Pakistani former PM Sharif's party as an election symbol to promote the party, on a street in Multan
People look at a caged lion, paraded by Pakistani former PM Sharif’s party as an election symbol to promote the party, on a street in Multan

These bouts and power shows merely celebrated the symbolism that the party had etched into the minds of its countless (and mostly illiterate) followers. Following the jalsa(gathering) of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Lahore on October 30, 2011, it became clear that there was a growing demographic of literate, young people that were moving towards voting in the next general elections. The mere fact that thousands of young and literate people were going to be voting in the next elections worried the PML members. This is perhaps why they didn’t parade and advertise their party symbol in their campaigns for the next election.

Natasha Daultana loves cats but the PML-N hates that
Natasha Daultana (above) loves cats but the PML-N hates that

Cat Troubles

You might think of this as an insubstantial excuse to call a majority of PML-N voters illiterate and that their choice of a tiger is unfair on their part to garner a large vote bank. In fact, PML-N particularly chose their party symbol to be a tiger so as to subliminally influence and appeal to people. This theory was tested more so in the by-elections held this very year.

Pakistan People’s Party’s Natasha Daultana won the recent by-elections in Vehari, even though her symbol was a domestic cat. PML-N was quick to point out that her win was only possible because a large number of voters merely confused the cat with PML-N’s symbol of a tiger. And just because PML-N has a monopoly on the feline symbolism, the party’s secretary general Iqbal Zafar Jhagra submitted an application to the ECP asking them to remove any other feline symbols from the list.

This is the extent to which PML-N relies upon its party’s symbol to bring in votes. What’s more interesting is the fact that Pakistan’s general public hasn’t got any wiser from past exercises in electoral voting campaigns. They still want the big cat to win. Do you too?

People, Not Parties

Where symbolism brings in much of the votes, personalities bring in the rest. People stop caring about party policies and start focusing more on the personalities of the party leaders. Instead of focusing on what the party stands for, they start focusing on the personality of the person they are voting. Take for instance, the people of Lyari. They voted for PPP’s Nabil Gabol, an outstanding citizen of the area – a seemingly concerned native of their tiny town.

Gabol organised rallies, fed the poor and fixed a few broken street lamps in the area – not because that was the party’s concern, but because he needed the people’s votes. He won in the general elections. Since then, the politician only visited his constituency half a dozen times while the constituent public only suffered at his behest (watch video below).


The upcoming general elections are again based around personalities of the contending champions of politics, e.g., Imran’s looks and demeanour, Zardari’s rich-man persona or Sharif’s charity in giving away laptops to a public that has no internet or electricity.

The Richer You Are…

..the more votes you get. It’s a matter of simple economics – if you could muster up enough money to feed a few people chicken biryani and haleem before they cast their votes in the election, you are more than likely to win from that constituency.

The hunger-stricken public in Pakistan thinks of these Godless rich as their messiahs (even for a day) and in a moment of respite give up the true power they hold against bringing these people into power. Once voted into office, these people never return back into their constituencies and in turn rummage and loot the nation’s treasures. Time and time again, the Election Commission has failed to bring effective measures against such unfair means.

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