Does Imran Khan’s election campaign strategy mirror Donald Trump’s?
“This election will decide whether we are ruled by a corrupt political class. You’re seeing what’s happening. Everybody’s watching. Or whether we are ruled by the people. We’re going to be ruled by the people... That is going to be the choice. A failed political establishment has delivered nothing but poverty, nothing but problems, nothing but losses.”
Do you remember when Imran Khan spoke those words? If you have trouble remembering the precise moment, you are not alone. Khan used these phrases and ideas throughout the 2018 election campaign, ultimately leading his party – and himself – to power.
But look again. This is not Khan at all. This is Donald Trump, November 7, 2016. Surprised?
“Change” (or, more popularly, tabdeeli) has been PTI’s mantra for the past six years. Khan’s personal charm, along with slick and professional media campaigns, have kept this idea alive and well with the public.
The media onslaught has been smart and sophisticated. From ever-catchier jingles, to iconic graphic design work, to the ‘branding’ of each initiative taken by the party (for example, the wheel jam strike in 2014 had the tagline “Shutdown to rebuild”), to attractive election posters with stylised portraits, PTI’s marketing campaign has consistently been savvy and dynamic.
The promise was and remains bold: PTI would wipe the slate clean of the corrupt ways of political administration and bring real change. The biggest USP of the PTI remains this: neither the party nor the leader have ever been in power on a national level. This and this alone, has helped paper over a lot of inconsistencies between the message and reality.
Moreover, thanks to the impact of the election campaign, PTI fans still believe. Even those who did not necessarily align themselves with PTI politically are cautiously hopeful. Khan’s strong and consistent campaign has been relentless and on-brand without fail. The campaign has been run like a well-oiled machine with an obvious professional touch that has elevated it above those by other parties; the ideals of governance laid down are clear and unambiguous.
Over time, with the evolution of PTI’s politics, the message has shifted in tone slightly. The party focused on enlisting fresh, untested faces in the 2013 elections, reinforcing the brand identity. However, in the intervening five years, two key developments in the political climate took place.
Firstly, PTI held a government in KP and its performance there came under scrutiny. Being part of the political machine for five years meant that PTI could no longer rely on its ‘fresh and untested’ status and had to answer for its governance. Secondly, as the party sensed a greater chance of forming the government on a national level, it adopted strategies that it once scoffed: enlisting tried and not necessarily true ‘electables’ from other parties, and banking on social infrastructure development in KP. To counter that, the party doubled down on the two messages: the persona of Khan himself and its governance record in KP.
The narrative largely worked. With its rivals weakened due to a variety of internal and external factors, PTI strategised its campaign, focusing on a socio-economic agenda. The presence of Asad Umer in its ranks helped on that front.
Now, the elections are over and PTI fans and neutral observers alike now eagerly wait for the promised ‘change’. The task at hand now is to convince the public that ‘good enough’ is not good enough.
Returning for a moment to Trump, his campaign strategy was focused on two catchphrases: “Make America Great Again” and “Draining the Swamp”. The first message was that US was not functioning to its peak potential due to policies adopted by Trump’s predecessors and the political administration was a ‘swamp’ riddled by a lack of transparency and corruption. It seems that the playbook has been adapted by the PTI.
As the realities of governing a country materialise, the PTI’s media strategy remains focused on the future. The message is, "Wait and see, we can deliver.". While the strategy is working for now, it is high time that the ideals are put into practice, for the betterment of the party and for the betterment of the country.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night. email@example.com