Remember when previously exiled politicians made their grand return to Pakistan with garlands around their neck and victory signs in the air? In the case of the late Benazir Bhutto (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif (PML-N), their advisers/PR teams released op-eds, press releases and statements, allowing party supporters to salivate over their much-anticipated comeback to Pakistani politics.
That was so 2007.
In 2010, former leaders plant the seeds of their comeback using social media platforms, creating Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. They start a mass movement in cyberspace, interacting with their fans at a grassroots level, uploading video messages, and ultimately blindsiding the naysayers who once crowed, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
In the world of Populism 2.0, former President Pervez Musharraf has managed to leverage social media rather successfully, boasting 187,649 fans in about seven months, [see my previous post, “Mushy Joins Facebook.”]. And, a week after he announced the formation of his new political party, All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), Musharraf revealed that he had 200,000 fans on Facebook, and “they wanted him to come back to Pakistan.”
Um, say what now?
It is not that Musharraf doesn’t have a right to return to Pakistan and contest elections. As I commented on Ahsan’s post at Five Rupees, the political process should always have diversity of choice, and it would be undemocratic to insist otherwise, particularly since other leaders with less than stellar pasts are back in power. My contention is with the Facebook shout-out, as if 200,000 fans on a social media platform somehow legitimize this comeback.
There is no doubt that Facebook is a powerful platform, boasting more than 300 million active users, about 70% of whom are located outside the United States. In Pakistan, it is also one of the most popular social networking websites, with over 2.5 million users, (according to The News’ Shakir Hussain). But 2.5 million is still a small percentage of Pakistan’s population – about 1.5% – and that too is a narrow demographic – namely those who are literate, speak English (to varying degrees) and own/use computers. Within that number, 200,000 Mushy Facebook fans also don’t take into account 1) the Pakistanis who are living in Pakistan (or are citizens) and 2) people who actually vote in elections. This is somewhat comparable to the numerous supporters for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan not often translating into actual votes at the election polls.
If Mushy can return to Pakistan, survive the Benazir Bhutto and National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) fires, and stage a comeback onto the Pakistani political stage, all the while leveraging his social media platform, then more power to him. But that success certainly won’t come from Facebook alone, and it will most definitely be a long road ahead.