Whenever talk turns to Pakistani politics, the biggest problem I have faced is a lack of data. How do we know which politicians, parties and policies are popular? Most of the time, we have to make do with hand-waving and some guesstimates of political rallies and marches. So I was really happy to find the opinion surveys of International Republican Institute done over 2006-2007.
Their latest poll was conducted from August 29 to September 13, 2007 and has a margin of error of 1.58%. For some context, Nawaz Sharif arrived in Pakistan on September 10 and was promptly sent to Saudi Arabian exile while Benazir Bhutto arrived in Karachi on October 18.
When Pakistanis were asked to name their top issues for voting decisions, they named mainly economic concerns: Inflation (37%), unemployment (20%), and poverty (11%). This was followed by law and order at 10%. Islamization was cited by only 2% of the respondents.
A majority (62%) does not want the army to have any role in government. More (76%, of which 70% have strong opinions on the matter) would like Musharraf to resign as army chief. Both of these numbers have increased over the course of this year.
Reports of a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto were around throughout this year. The poll shows that support for such a deal is down.
However, a majority of PPP (58%) and PML-Q (53%) supporters still favor the deal. When given an option between a deal with Musharraf and an alliance with the opposition APDM, almost half of all respondents prefer the PPP joining APDM. This is even true for PPP supporters, which is strange since they support the Musharraf-Bhutto deal too.
47% of Pakistanis think that this deal is for improving Bhutto’s personal situation while 27% believe it is for bringing democracy. These numbers are reversed among PPP supporters.
To anyone watching Pakistan, it is clear how things have taken a turn for the worse recently, what Amber called “beginning of the end” some months ago. Still the question about which direction Pakistan is heading was an eye opener with such a dramatic change over the last 6 months.
Government performance numbers have shown a similar trend, with the government being quite popular (61%) in February 2007.
Musharraf’s job approval rating has fallen faster and lower than Bush’s, with 70% now calling for his resignation.
A very interesting question is about which leader can best handle the problems facing Pakistan. No one gets a majority, showing both Pakistanis’ cynicism about their leaders and the divisions in society. But I found it very intriguing that Nawaz Sharif comes out of nowhere to suddenly lead the pack in the latest survey. Since that survey was conducted right in the middle of Sharif’s effort to return and his being packed off to Saudia again, it is premature to say whether he’ll hold on to his lead. My guess is that Musharraf is very unpopular right now and some of that has rubbed on to Bhutto due to her deal with Musharraf.
A province-wise breakdown of leaders is even more interesting, with the religio-political leaders trailing even in the province they rule, NWFP.
Looking at the favorability ratings of Pakistani political leaders, we see Musharraf crashing which was obvious but we also see Altaf Hussain of MQM going from 18% to 6%. Whether this will mean that MQM’s hold on Karachi will be broken is anybody’s guess. The religio-political leaders Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Fazalur Rehman peaked a year ago but have lost popularity since. And this was before the drama of Fazalur Rehman trying to hold on to power in NWFP at all costs during the Musharraf election in October. My prediction is for Fazalur Rahman to be even more unpopular in the next survey.
Coming to elections, 74% of Pakistanis opposed the reelection of Musharraf as President. The voting intentions for parliamentary elections by party track the leaders reasonably, with Musharraf being considered the leader for the ruling PML-Q. I was surprised at the PML-N performance though. I guess most of the anti-Musharraf, non-PPP vote is accumulated there.
In Punjab, PML-N (54%) does best followed by PML-Q (21%). In Sindh, PPP is at 64% followed by PML-Q at 8%. In NWFP, PML-N is at 27% while PML-Q and PPP are tied at 17% each (note that NWFP is currently ruled by MMA which polls even behind Imran Khan’s PTI). In Balochistan, it’s PPP at 29% followed by MMA at 15%.
Overall, it looks like Musharraf and the ruling alliance are very unpopular. So unpopular in fact that Bhutto’s PPP is getting tainted due to their willingness to make a deal. The religious alliance MMA is also not as popular as it was in the last elections in 2002. And in urban Sindh, MQM seems to be finally losing its stranglehold.