ISLAMABAD: Amidst uncertainties and repeated claims of “level playing open field by the country’s establishment”, neither political parties nor the voters seem enthusiastic about the upcoming general elections scheduled to be held on February 8, 2024 in Pakistan. There, nevertheless, is a place, called X (formerly twitter) though which is still buzzing with fury, fumes and fires where one can see not only jailed Imran Khan, convict-free Nawaz Sharif, his video-famed daughter Maryam Nawaz and somewhere in between Zardari’s untested horse, Bilawal Bhutto spewing venom against each other. Don’t forget that kingmakers are equally busy on the X platform by reassuring to none other than Pakistanis that they will continue to stay “neutral”.

The witty, the wily and the wicked social media teams of PTI, PML(N) and PPP are posing quite a show on this cyber platform, which by all means seems to be dominated by team-Imran. Team-Maryam is not very far behind while our beloved inter services public relations (ISPR) remains more active than Bilawal’s brigade.

Interestingly, digital and social media in Pakistan has seen an unprecedented spike in recent years. According to a data portal, Pakistan had 98.2 million internet users, 53 million social media users, and 183.5 million mobile connections as of January 2023. The most popular social media platforms in Pakistan are YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok. The digital media market in Pakistan is also projected to grow from $469.7 million in 2020 to $1,009.8 million by 2025, with video-on-demand being the largest segment.

According to a study done by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was the most active and popular political party on Facebook and Twitter during the 2018 general elections, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). However, since 2018, the reach and excess of PTI have almost doubled.

Furthermore, after the change in government in April 2022, the popularity of PTI has reached a new zenith in the digital industry in Pakistan.

As per our latest random checks Imran Khan has a following of 20 million on X (formerly twitter), followed by Maryam Nawaz with 8 million and ISPR with 6.2 million while Bilawal carries 5.1 million. On the Facebook ISPR seems to be elading with 20 million followers while Imran is second choice of with 14 million while both Bilawal (0.26 million) and Maryam Nawaz (0.19 million) friends.

Imran Khan the nemesis of kingmakers remains an issue is in jail and Even Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the supposed “pick” of the kingmakers for this round of election-saga is finding it appropriate to collect the “electable” than hold public rallies, while Peoples Party is quite content with holding on to its two-decade old drip on province of Sindh.

Amid the boiling political temperatures on these social media platforms, the heated or should I say hate-words have become a routine in particular between PTI and PMLN. PPP is visibly staying focused on attacking PMLN for having a deal with the kingmakers while handful of PTI followers are busy throwing their venomous words against PML-N as well as the establishment.
In recent times, social media has become a battleground for political parties in Pakistan, with supporters using pet names like ‘Patwari (Nawaz Leaguers)’ and ‘Youthia (Imran followers)’ to label and attack each other. These pet names are considered offensive by the followers of each camp hence is generating lots of hate spewing from both sides of the aisle.

Recently, this social media battle between PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) and PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) touched another pinnacle soon after the airing of a prime time TV anchor (Shahzeb Khanzada’s) interview with Mian Khawar Manika- former husband of Imran Khan’s current wife Bushra Bibi. Ever since, PTI supporters not only labelling Khawar Manika a person of dual standards but also uploading semi-nude pictures of Geo anchor Shahzeb Khanzada.
One of the consumers, after that interview in his post on social media retorts, “This person (Manika) does not belong to Manika Family but seems like belonging with Sharif Family (Patwaris). After a span of five years, he got to remember that Imran Khan used to visit my house to meet my own wife.” In response, a PML-N supporter says, “..and interestingly, five years ago, a person who used to visit Manika house to meet his wife, has now become a “spiritual father” of an educated class (youthians)”. Another PTI supporter jibed back, “A person who reckon Imran Khan an angel five years ago, instantly become “a father of Patwaris” after airing an interview.
Over the last few years and especially since the debacle of PTI-regime and May 9th incident (supposed burning of a Jinnah House by PTI supporters), the social media has become a significant platform for political parties in Pakistan to engage with their supporters and promote their ideologies either in positive or negative ways. Both PTI and PML-N have a strong presence on various social media platforms, and their supporters are often quite vocal in expressing their views.

PML-N leaders are using the social media to claim they have entered into a deal with the kingmakers and Mian Nawaz Sharif is set to be the next prime minister once again. This prompots a PTI supporter, who spontaneously, snaps back on Face book, “The one who has been asking people (of Pakistan): Mujhay kion nikala, wo bhi Pakistan ko mushkil se nkalane ki batain kar raha hay.” (A person who has been asking: Why have I been thrown out? is pledging people of Pakistan to get the country out of current turmoil”.
As far as the establishment is concerned, PTI supports are the only one currently criticizing Pakistani military establishment especially on the issue of May 9 chaos. Now that, majority of PTI parliamentarians has quit PTI condemning the May 9 incident and has joined Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP), yet the workers and supporters of PTI are apparently standing intact (at least by looking at the social media accounts and exchanges) criticizing establishment, because of the recent surveys which highlights PTI popularity graph skyrocketing while PML-N stands nowhere near rather has shown a declining trajectory.

Pakistan’s military establishment is also not leaving these social media platforms unattended as they continue to use this platform to release new songs, motivational statements and even claims that they will stay neutral and let the political parties battle it out within themselves. Despite having directly ruled the country for over 35 years and at other times being accused of “political engineering,” the ISPR every now and then comes up with the “neutral” statement just to stir the PTI camp to make mockery of such claims while PML (N) supporters to praise them for gallantry.

Former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, in a retirement speech late last year, even spoke of “constant meddling by the army in politics for the last 70 years.” Bajwa went on to say that the military had changed its ways and was staying out of politics. But that did not placate Khan and his supporters, who blame the establishment for his downfall in a no-confidence vote in April 2022. Some of the PTI supports believe that “there is a growing perception, even in its historically most captive regions like Punjab, that the army oversteps its boundaries in the name of national security.”

The military and its civilian political allies have responded to such PTI bashing by organizing a full-blown PR campaign on ground as well as on social media. This includes pro-army rallies and events commemorating soldiers’ sacrifices. A PTI turn-coat Dr. Firdous Ashiq who has joined Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) as Central Information Secretary recently was quoted in the media saying that the baseless and fabricated narrative constructed by PTI was actually the ‘conspiracy’ to destroy the roots of Pakistan—the narrative was set up to pollute the minds of the youth. Firdous said that the conspiracy was hatched to create chaos in society through incidents like May 9 riots.

The political crisis gripping Pakistan is anything but predictable. But with Khan seemingly on the ropes, establishment is getting on with its usual march to quell any spears thrown directly at them by making two recent moves to deter this trend. Major (rtd) Adil Farooq Raja and Captain (rtd) Haider Raza Mehdi, both former army officers with large following on YouTube, were handed 14 and 12 years of jail sentence respectively following their Field General Court Martial for “inciting sedition”, the military’s media wing said on Saturday.
In a statement, the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) said both retired officers were convicted and sentenced “under the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 for the charges of inciting sedition among army personnel from discharge of duties and violation of the provisions of Official Secrets Act, 1923 related to espionage and acts prejudicial to the safety and interest of the state”.

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