Spurred by a lull in Taliban attacks and the prospect of general elections within months, Pakistan’s politicians are consumed by campaign fever, spelling boom times for the advertising industry.
The feudal landlords and billionaire industrialists who have dominated politics for decades, were shocked to the core when retired cricketer Imran Khan managed to attract a massive crowd in Lahore.
Anxious to halt Khan in his tracks, other political and religious parties have followed suit, organising public rallies with an eye on an election, which most now predict will be held either by April or in September or October.
The relative decline in attacks – 132 people killed in the last four months compared to more than 454 from May 1 to August 31 – have made rallies a lucrative spin off business for advertising and publicity agents.
Red placards shrieking in bold black “Sit-In Against Corruption” from Pakistan’s largest religious party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) greet those turning off the motorway into Lahore.
Billboards scream out Khan’s hopes for change while multi-coloured banners from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) competed in wishing minority Christians a happy Christmas.
Those in the trade say there hasn’t been such a boom since the 2008 elections swept the PPP to power after nine years of military rule.
“Political activities have started and attacks have stopped. There will be a boom in our business now,” says 60-year-old Muhammad Mushtaq, who prints banners in Lahore’s Royal Park market.
Sitting on the ground in the winter sunshine outside his small shop, Mushtaq said the last few years had been the worst in his life.
“I earnt good money in the past but terrorism spoilt everything. I hope the fresh campaigns and upcoming elections will enhance our business,” he said.
He said he made $300 in profit from running off 400 banners for Khan’s rally in October, has paid off his debts and is now hoping to make 500,000 rupees ($5,500) from the election season.
Mass outpourings over issues other than gas and electricity cuts are rare, so election seasons see a big uptake in rallies.
“Generally the economy goes up one percent in election years,” said Farooq Hassan, secretary general of the Advertising Association of Pakistan, who is this year predicting a growth of three percent in the advertising industry.
“We have seen some rallies so far… As the elections come closer, TV and radio advertisements will also start,” he added.
Iftikhar Ahmed, a printer who makes banners for PML-N and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Lahore, is also looking forward to major profits in 2012.
“We cut half our staff in previous months because business was very bad. Now we’re planing to re-employ them all because we expect business worth at least one million rupees ($11,000),” he said.
But Ahmed said the trick was to get clients to pay up front, warning that after the polls it could be a different story.
“If they win the elections, it’s very difficult to get our money because they become powerful… and if they lose, they simply say ‘we’ve got huge losses and can’t pay’.”
AB Nadeem, a senior member of the Punjab Outdoor Publicity Association, said he expected political parties to sink seven billion rupees into advertising ahead of the next elections.
“Imran Khan’s rallies in Lahore and Karachi, and his promotion strategy have set new precedents,” he told AFP.
“We expect the major parties to hire top advertising and PR firms for their campaigns, so we expect to see a major increase in the advertising budget.”
Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf and PML-N refused to divulge numbers, but said they would plough everything into convincing the electorate before polling day.