The recent International Republican Institute (IRI) survey has attracted the media with a singular focus on the popularity of Pakistan’s political parties. This is a fallacy because it ignores the rider clauses of how the people think. Each political party is bound to give its own angular comments on the survey for political mileage. Hence the need for an objective analysis of the multidimensional aspects of the survey and frame hypotheses into the future course of Pakistan’s political economy.
The sample size of around 5,000 for a population of over 180 million is too small. The response around 75% further restricts the opinions. Geographical proximity and lack of ingress into FATA, PATA and remote areas like Chitral etcetera restrict representation. The survey does not take into consideration the high cell phone density of Pakistan and the very high use of SMS to spread news in distant areas. Yet, given the margin of error, most findings of the survey are accurate and thought provoking.
According to the survey, 75% voters are determined to cast their vote in next elections. The statistics since February 2011 indicate that the number of opinions on votes influencing elections has increased from 59% to 78%. This is a major shift from conventional thinking.
41% consider next elections to be issue based, 20% remain undecided while 40% still consider affiliations as a major determinant to vote. This means that the election scenario may turn out to be a bitter contest between zealots of change versus agents of inertia.
57% consider corruption as the major impediment to human resource development while 46% consider corruption and law enforcement as major economic woes. This factor coupled with incumbency will be the major hurdle that parties in power will have to surmount.
Opinions varying from 80% in June 2011 to 64% in November 2012 do not favour creation of new provinces. This means that the incumbent parties are divorced from ground realities and their constituencies.
74% consider television to be the major source of information. This implies that media will create synergy during the election campaign and play a determinant role. He who rides the airwaves will have an exponential advantage.
95% of opinions come from income groups up to Rs. 25,000 meaning a reflection of the poor and low middle class and 75% from age groups between 18-40 years. Unemployment and inflation at 32% and 20% are the two critical issues facing Pakistan. While 70% feel that their individual economic situation has worsened over the years they single out the national assembly, present governments and the opposition for the slide. 84% consider the military and 78% the media as favourable. 87% in contrast to 73% in 2007 (judicial and energy crises) feel that Pakistan is headed in the wrong direction. Yet somewhere in the analysis, there are a people reflected; bitter but not withdrawn, poor but not without vision, forlorn but not without hope.
The statistics enumerated above reflect a serious change in thinking and attitudes of the people. The opinions indicate the fragility relevant to situational swings triggered at the last moment. Put simply, it can be hypothesized with a fair degree of certainty that the majority of Pakistanis within the representative groups show a remarkable insight into the political economy of the country and look forward to bringing a sweeping mandate for a new social contract through fair and transparent elections. The three parties with largest national representation will have to be on toes.
Amongst the political parties, PPP with its consistent die hard vote bank remains the major loser. Since 2007, the party has failed to capitalize on the sympathy factor. It can be induced that opinions hovering around 18% in its popularity amongst age groups comprise the absence of a major portion of the non committal that would either abstain or vote for Bhutto. As the survey indicates, PPP like all others has been affected by the incumbency factor aggravated by pursuit of policies that are not in sync with the aspirations of its vote bank. The fact that nearly 80% have rejected the notion of a Southern Punjab Province in line with the sociology of syncretism belies the awareness of the people with the current socio-economic and security situation. The extended opinion of the people could mean that devolution in environments of an economic meltdown and multiple security threats writ large is sheer bad timings. The verdict of the people that devolution will cause more fractures in the society aggravating the seamless web of insecurity is correct. The bulwark and Machiavellian approach adopted by PPP means that though it may stand to gain a few seats in the reconstituted senate elections, its popularity would plummet and distance it from its vote bank; an ominous sign for a once idealist party.
Approval ratings of 32% for PMLN with a 14% lead are a good omen that a year ago trailed its closest rival PTI. In Punjab, approval ratings of 49% compared to its closest rival PTI with plummeting 19% seem encouraging. Its decline was once steep but is now recovering particularly due to the Punjab centric bad policies of the federal government which itself has plummeted from 44% to 8%. It still has to recover its close to 60% approvals in 2009 (Chief Justice Long March) it gained after dumping its allies. It is important to see the recent approvals in the context of PMLN’s 22% ratings in 2008 (when it formed the government in Punjab and became the major ally and later opposition party at the national level).
Back in 2008, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf was not a factor for contention but is now a major challenger. The survey also indicates a seesaw of opinions alternating between PMLN and PTI indicating that both appear to vie for the same segments of society. The induction of the Qadri Factor and ability of Imran Khan to create waves at the time of his choosing and win over the skeptics (ex leftists) will also affect future opinion polls and voting patterns. As opinions indicate, PMLN may not be in a position to make a government in the centre or Punjab without cooperation of its coalition partners. The survey specific to Southern Punjab also indicates the disenchantment of the people with PMLN. Punjab is particularly vulnerable to lawlessness where majority of 40% voters supporting the inertia will unleash their bag of dirty tricks.
Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf once seen as the rising star in Pakistan Politics now trails PMLN by a massive disapproval of 14% at national and 30% at Punjab level. It leads opinions in KPK by 32% against its closest rival PMLN at 12%. A party despite a social reforms agenda/change congruent to the aspirations of the people seems to have lost its bearings post 30 October 2011. It is time for introspection and serious soul searching within PTI. The hypothesis framed in the beginning of this article is identical to the arguments of Imran Khan that next election will see a major influx of new and young voters who will exercise their electoral right based on issues and bring the proverbial tsunami. The fact that the highest approval ratings of PTI came before the induction of electable and seasoned politicians post October 2011 offers one intriguing insight into why the approvals have declined.
PTI’s inaction has to do with electable politics, restructuring through intra party elections and the unhealthy internal competition within the old guard. The ideology of the party is betrayed through distinct lack of camaraderie within the aspirants and by implication, the followers. This tussle has overtaken the urge to reach out to the sea of emotions that cry Change. The survey is an indictment that unless PTI fields majority of new faces and distances itself from the traditionally electable rhetoric, swing voters will not make a favourable choice. An important indicator in this regard is that the popularity of PTI in KPK surged from 30% to 32% after Mr. Azam Hoti called it quits. PTI needs more action and less deliberation.
To conclude, the electoral results will ultimately depend on transparency and due process. The people of Pakistan are most likely to turn out for voting in large numbers in which the votes between the ages of 18 to 40 years will be decisive. A wining party therefore must have the right manifesto, the right faces and an imaginative electoral and media strategy to ride the airwaves. As a caution, spoilers of the game will hound the elections.