Media Campaign Ignites Push for Local Elections in Pakistan
July 9, 2014
There is much talk these days in Pakistan about democracy. Just over a year since national elections marked the first transition in the country’s history from one democratically elected federal government to another, some are already calling for new elections for reasons ranging from alleged malpractice at the 2013 polls to vague demands for reform of the whole system of governance. But others have hit back, calling for support for the democratic system across the political spectrum, especially in the face of the many challenges confronting Pakistan, and warning of the dangers of subverting a still-fragile democracy.
One important component of the democratic system remains largely inoperative. Pakistan’s constitution guarantees a “third tier” of elected governments at the local level so that many provincial responsibilities can be devolved to the district level and below. Holding local elections is a provincial responsibility, but elected governments in Pakistan’s provinces have been slow to hold such elections, fearing that an active third tier would reduce their political powers. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Pakistan queried as to why no local elections had yet been held. Only Balochistan, the smallest of the four provinces by population has complied, while the other three have been citing technical reasons for not taking action despite previously announcing, but failing to meet, their own deadlines for elections. The Supreme Court has now set November 2014 as a new deadline but provincial governments’ delay in starting to make the necessary preparations for local elections suggests that they will again not comply.
The substantial devolution of powers from Islamabad to the provinces commencing in 2010 coincided with the expiry of the elected local governments set up in the Musharraf period. A revived system of elected local governments across the country would fulfill the constitutional requirement and engage people at the local level in decision-making that affects their lives most directly.
In this context, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) has launched a massive media campaign to push for early local elections. The campaign is being run under Supporting Transparency, Accountability, and Electoral Processes in Pakistan (STAEP), a program funded by DFID and managed by The Asia Foundation. The media campaign started in the second week of June and has entered its final week. Spread over four weeks, it has received more response from citizens than was expected at the outset.
The campaign faced the dual hurdle of taking an important, but at the same time technical and serious, message to the mainstream media, and of running a nationwide campaign with a modest budget. Its objectives are to raise public awareness, increase pressure on the governments to hold local elections, and educate voters. It also aims to strengthen the voices of women and minorities, encouraging them to become active participants in grassroots democracy. However, initial research conducted by Matteela, the company implementing the campaign, showed a lack of resonance among the public for the campaign messages that were originally envisioned.
As a result, FAFEN devised a new strategy for public outreach, which was simple yet extraordinary. The campaign needed to stand out among the daily rush of ads and information overload. Countering the generally held belief that socio-political campaigns have to be dry, dull, and preachy, this one was designed to be rooted in the everyday experience of ordinary people. Since Pakistanis have become inured to banal messages, meaningless statistics, and empty slogans, the FAFEN Media Campaign needed to find a unique voice, and decided that this voice should be the voice of the common person.
Scriptwriters and designers worked tirelessly to bring authenticity to this voice, incorporating testimonials of ex-councilors, hard hitting slogans in street language, and dramatic comic skits. The visuals and music employed in the campaign were developed so that they would be immediately recognized in small mohallas (neighborhoods) throughout Pakistan.
Although the budget was very limited for a nationwide campaign, FAFEN successfully translated the radio messages into five languages. The resulting campaign has been one of the most effective in its field, reaching far-flung areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Punjab.
The TV campaign was designed as a concentrated, one-week campaign. Once on air, the TV ads became a talking point among politically astute circles in the mohallas. Airing on 10 mainstream channels in Urdu and four regional languages, they made the opinion-makers take notice: on June 29, Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn carried an editorial calling for early local government elections. Interest in building on the media campaign for elected local government has been expressed by one of Pakistan’s leading development research institutes, and a major grant-making program is considering soliciting proposals which will focus on local governance and local elections.
It would take something extraordinary to catch the interest of Pakistan’s largely apolitical youth bulge with their short attention spans. However, the social media component of the campaign has successfully enlivened this younger audience. Employing visually attractive memes, humorous animation motion graphics, and interactive contests, the online campaign has gained more than 46,000 followers on Facebook since its start, the majority being in the 18-24-year-old age group. These followers have proved to be a highly interactive group, keen to know more about the issues and passionate about the problems that plague their neighborhoods.
Effective local governments would underpin democracy in Pakistan, giving citizens more influence over decisions that affect them. Those who would postpone local elections indefinitely may see some short-term political advantage in doing so, but in the long run, consolidating the democratic transition by engaging citizens more closely in the business of the state at all levels is far more important.
Rashid Chaudhry leads The Asia Foundation’s Supporting Transparency, Accountability, and Electoral Processes in Pakistan (STAEP) program and Gareth Aicken is the Foundation’s country representative there. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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