A paradigm shift?

February 18, 2024

Were some parties able to mobilise their supporters more effectively than others? Possibly.

A paradigm shift?


ow does one describe the Pakistani voter in the 2024 elections? Did the election produce exceptional voter mobilisation or was it a routine affair? Did the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf ride a wave of protest vote? Did its perceived proximity to the establishment alienate the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s voters?

In terms of overall political mobilisation, the elections produced no surprises.

According to initial estimates, the turnout was 47.6 percent. Despite the increase in absolute number of registered voters, these elections witnessed a lower percentage of voting than in the 2018 elections when the turnout was 52.1 percent.

At the sub-national level, the highest voter turnout was observed in Islamabad, 54.2 percent, followed by the Punjab, 51.6 percent. Despite the current euphoria, this ratio is lower than the 2018 election. In Sindh and Balochistan, the voter turnout was estimated at 43.7 and 42.9 percent, respectively. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was at the bottom of the voting ratio with only 39.5 percent of the province’s registered voters exercising their choice.

A paradigm shift?

The gender voter differential in Pakistan, a well-documented phenomenon, persisted. In 2024, the gender voting gap was estimated at 9 percent.

Who did these people vote for? Are there clear winners and losers of this voter mobilisation? According to unconfirmed data, the PTI secured 31 percent of the votes cast. The PML-N followed with 24 percent and the PPP with 14 percent. This seems to be business as usual as far as voter mobilisation is considered, in terms of the competitive positions of the three mainstream parties. Yet, the 2024 elections provided a shock to the system with the PTI ‘independents’ emerging as the largest potential voting bloc in the National Assembly. Moreover, the PTI-backed candidates scored a resounding victory in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and were a close second to the PML-N in the Punjab.

Were some parties able to mobilise their supporters more effectively than others? Are these results reflective of the successful voter mobilisation by certain parties? Or was it the residual support for the party leader that pulled voters to the polling stations on February 8, 2024?

The PTI appears to have outsmarted other parties in terms of mobilising its voters. This is all the more remarkable considering the ‘uneven playing field’ prior to the elections. The party brought its voters out against the odds, having endured the post-May 9 crackdown, imprisonment of its top leaders and loss of its electoral symbol. In the face of legal and political challenges, it was able to keep its voter base intact. What made this mobilisation possible?

The PTI mobilised the voters around a narrative of defiance to the establishment. The post-May 9 clampdown against its leaders, cadres and workers helped its cause, cementing its profile as the David standing up to the Goliath of a mighty state. The tale of ‘martyrdom’ that was first weaved after Imran Khan’s removal from power on April 9, 2022 continued following his arrest on August 5, 2023 and convictions in the Cipher case, Toshakhana case and the Iddat case in January 2024.

Social media was a key instrument in the PTI’s toolkit. The party has so far led the digital revolution in the context of electoral politics in Pakistan. In the absence of space for campaigning on the ground, the PTI was able to use Facebook, X, TikTok and Instagram to connect with its voters. The party’s anti-establishment narrative touched a sympathetic cord with voters.

At the other end of the spectrum lay the PML-N. In the lead-up to the elections, it was widely seen as the ‘winning horse.’ Nawaz Sharif, the perceived ‘Manchurian candidate,’ had returned from exile in October 2023. Within months, his legal troubles had melted away and the PML-N was allowed to hold large public rallies. The party’s perceived proximity with the establishment appears to have backfired.

An uninspiring campaign did not help its cause either. Unlike the PTI’s intrusive mobilisation through social media, and the PPP’s vibrant campaign in all the four provinces, the PML-N campaign was a pale shadow of its past. Previously, it had built a popular narrative around the catchy slogan of respect for the vote. In 2024, its election narrative was steeped in past glory with regular references to motorways, the CPEC and the 1998 nuclear tests.

The PML-N is yet to experience the social media revolution. Inadequate presence on the social media scene coupled with its failure to connect with the youth – the largest demographic grouping in Pakistan – dealt a blow to its hopes of electoral success. The PML-N’s understanding of the youth was woefully exposed during Nawaz Sharif’s ‘victory’ speech on February 9. His only reference to the youth was the promise to restart Shahbaz Sharif’s laptop distribution scheme.

The PPP, unlike the other two major parties, seems to have stood its ground. It consolidated its hold over Sindh and even made inroads in Balochistan. The key to Bilawal’s effective voter mobilisation was a vibrant on-ground election campaign along with the adoption of a populist posture. He engaged in the ‘otherisation’ of his political adversaries, especially the PML-N. His rhetoric bashed the latter’s ‘fixed match’ with the establishment and critiqued its governance record. He skilfully played the ‘generation card,’ lambasting the tenure of the older generation at the helm of the PML-N. He held rallies across Pakistan, culminating with a power show in Karachi on the last day of the campaign.

At the heart of the PPP’s mobilisation was the use of ethnic narrative. This is understandable since Sindh has historically been the ground zero of two competing nationalisms, in the form of Sindhi-Muhajir contestation. The more things heated up between the PPP and the MQM, the more the PPP was able to position itself as the guardian of Sindh’s interests.

The parties that failed to mobilise their supporters included Jehangir Tareen’s Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party, Pervaiz Khattak’s PTI-Parliamentarian and the PML-Quaid. Among the category of ethnic nationalist parties, the MQM was the only success story. The Sindhi, Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists failed the mobilisation test. Religious parties were simply rendered irrelevant in the conflict between titans in the mainstream.

The 2024 elections did not produce a paradigmatic shift in voter mobilisation in Pakistan. It merely exposed substantive differences in the mobilisation skills of various contenders for power.

The writer is the director of the political science programme at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She is the author of In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan (Hurst Publishers, 2021)

A paradigm shift?