There’s heat but very little light surrounding Pakistan’s impending parliamentary elections.
Western journalists are crowding into Pakistan in anticipation of a spectacular blowup following the February 18 parliamentary elections.
Pakistani political blogs are plastered with pie charts reflecting every conceivable bias and depicting every imaginable electoral outcome.
Just in the last week, two U.S. think tanks surveyed Pakistani opinion with remarkably divergent results--results that may be used either set the stage for a smooth transfer of power or plunge Pakistan into an instantaneous post-election crisis.
A U.S. think tank with the absurdly Orwellian name Terror Free Tomorrow (I guess that’s better than today, when we have to pay for our terror) recently attracted attention with a poll showing that al Qaeda and the Taliban have grown markedly less popular inside Pakistan since extremists adopted a policy of Muslim-on-Muslim violence with bombings in the heartland.
In its political findings, the TFT survey of 1157 people showed the PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, as the most popular political party in Pakistan—with 36.7%.
Nawaz Sharif’s opposition PML-N clocked in with a popularity of 25.3%.
These rather unexceptionable results were instantly overshadowed on February 11 when the International Republican Institute came out with its new poll on February 11 of 3,485 people.
In the areas that most concern us, the only thing less popular than Musharraf (16%) is cooperating with the US in the War on Terror (down from 15% to 9%). Heckuva a job, people!
But the IRI poll’s main impact is in the domestic electoral game.
The high profile IRI poll, appearing a week before the election, seems timed to trigger an avalanche of hundreds of articles in the domestic and international media—and expectations by international observers--about the strong position of the PPP just before the nation goes to the polls.
IRI showed the PPP attracting 50% of respondents nationwide--an enormous jump of 20% from the 30% support level IRI reported for the PPP in its previous, pre-assassination poll in November.
The IRI poll found the PML-N sagging at 22% nationwide, and losing in the Punjab to the PPP by 12%.
The IRI results immediately became an issue in the election campaign.
The PPP trumpeted the results:
Pakistan People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari has welcomed the IRI polls survey and termed it a great victory for the PPP and vindication of its position that only massive rigging can stop it from sweeping the elections.
The Pakistani government and the ruling party, the PML-Q, indignantly rebutted the findings. The PML-N has apparently kept silent.
Interestingly, there has been little discussion of the discrepancy between the IRI poll and the TFT poll on PPP popularity.
IRI’s 50% vs.TFT’s 36.7%.
For the identical period—January 19-29.
For poll samples large enough for error rates to be under 3%.
That’s a big enough discrepancy between TFT and IRI to make one wonder how sound somebody’s polling methodology is.
Some things in the IRI polling jump out: 61% male sample? How random is that?
The reliability of the poll is especially important since IRI holds the polling franchise for contesting allegedly rigged elections in the run-up to U.S.-backed color coded revolutions...and the U.S. apparently prefers a Musharraf/PPP government to one in which the PML-N participates and plays a moderating and rather anti-American role.
The IRI poll is key because the PPP is poised to claim rigged elections--and cite the IRI poll as evidence for electoral hanky-panky...and justification for initiating a mass movement against the government.
If the PML-Q comes out on top in the elections again with a plurality, the sizable PPP and PML-N blocks will presumably refuse to join.
This would normally result in a hung parliament, continued crisis and drift, dissolution of parliament, a new election—and a shrinkage of PPP gains in favor of the PML-N as the post-assassination fervor wears off.
But this is no ordinary year.
The PPP would find it intolerable to lose its charismatic leader and get jobbed out of power in the year it was supposed to win it all.
The PPP also realizes its political popularity is at its peak, and can only deteriorate, especially as the PML-N strengthens.
The PPP has clearly signaled that there will be no business as usual if it does not gain the right to form the government.
The PPP has decided it’s worth putting their people out on the streets if they don’t come out on top.
The IRI framing gives an idea of where this is all is really heading.
IRI asked what percentage of respondents would support protests against the government in the case of an apparently rigged election and 53% said they would.
The key qualification, one that may be overlooked, was in the hypothetical situation: “if the PML-Q won the most seats”, i.e. won a plurality.
The PML-Q is the current plurality holder with 126 of the 341 seats won with 25% of the votes, less than the PPP got. The PML-Q got the right to reach out to minority parties and form the ruling coalition with its guy as prime minister. The PPP, in second place with 81 seats, is excluded.
It’s a given that the PML-Q, with its support and Musharraf’s favorability both in the teens, will lose seats and the PPP (and PML-N) will make big gains.
Reading the popular mood, if Musharraf’s vote riggers commit the folly of engineering another PML-Q plurality, Pakistani opinion will probably go along with street demonstrations demanding that the PPP lead the formation of a government.
But, in a potentially significant distinction, there is probably not a national consensus on behalf of a mass movement claiming an exclusive national mandate for the PPP.
I would be interested to see how many people would have endorsed street demonstrations for the PPP pursuing power without a coalition “if the PPP did not win a majority”.
Probably a pretty low number.
Wish IRI had asked that question.
The IRI poll, with its assertion that the PPP enjoys 50% national support, provides Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s unpopular widower who parachuted into the PPP co-chairmanship after the assassination, with useful political leverage if the election turns out badly and the party needs justification for "taking it to the streets" to win a plurality and the right to form a government.
Dangerously, the 50% figure also offers Zardari the temptation to try to go it alone and demand an absolute majority--instead of a coalition-forming plurality--for the PPP, as the U.S. would prefer.
That would put him at odds with Pakistani public opinion, which apparently wants a coalition government instead.
I found it interesting that, according to IRI, while 50% support the PPP, 69% of respondents supported the scenario in which Musharraf resigns, a national unity government is formed, and free and fair elections are held.
That’s not a vote of confidence in the PPP. The PPP’s policy is adamantly opposed to a unity government. It wants to charge ahead, rigged elections be damned, IRI polling in hand, to exploit the surge of post-assassination outrage and act as the power broker in the new government.
The overwhelming preference seems to be for dumping the PML-Q and allowing the PPP to form a PPP/PML-N coalition led by Makhdom Amim Fahmim, the docile and conciliatory apparatchik who, but for Bhutto’s will, would probably have become the PPP’s next leader instead of Zardari.
This Solomonic dispensation would give the post-assassination PPP its due, but not let Zardari and his Sindhi cronies have the run of the place.
It would also bring Nawaz Sharif, currently the opposition politician with the highest national stature and a voice for the powerful Punjab faction, into the government.
Support for a PPP/PML-N coalition polled at 72%. Overall support for Fahmim as prime minister reached 56%.
The PPP will do well in the elections but, under Zardari, a jump in PPP approval from 30% pre assassination to 50% today doesn’t seem very sustainable—or a sound foundation for a post-election push for people power unless the PML-N is given a role as well.
Zardari is keen to keep the PPP juggernaut on track, but his recklessness and ego are a dangerous distraction to the party.
Zardari did not help himself or his party with an interview in Newsweek hinting at his ambition to win Benazir Bhutto’s old seat in an upcoming by-election, enter the national assembly, and shoulder aside Fahmim as prime minister.
“There is not one single personality [in the party], apart from me, who anybody even knows,” said Mr Zardari while explaining why he thought he should be the prime minister.
“No one else has a consensus.”
According to IRI, when asked who they wanted for prime minister for the PPP, 77% named Fahmim.
8% named Zardari.
That popular figure Don’t Know/No Response beat him by 4%.
Nevertheless, after all this IRI chose to describe Zardari as “one of the most popular leaders in the country” even though only 37% viewed him favorably--far behind Fahmim at 66% and Sharif at 55%.
Contrast that with TFT, which found that Nawaz Sharif’s favorable/unfavorable rating among all respondents was 72%/18%; for Asif Zardari, it’s 48%/32%.
Dawn’s profile of Zardari mocked the efforts of PPP flacks to compare Zardari to Sonia Gandhi and openly questioned his judgment:
It’s a topsy-turvy world and so is the new PPP.
It turned out that at first Babar Awan [Benazir Bhutto’s lawyer and PPP functionary] was trying to please Asif. This is the old way in the new PPP to become closer to Caesar Zardari. That’s how he rose in the ranks so fast but now wants to rise higher. Not to be left behind, the overly ‘made-up media maidens’ (MMM) of the PPP[the author is presumably referring to PPP spokesperson Sherry Rehman, whose glamorized, Westernized, and Bhuttoized look apparently doesn’t sit well with him] are, in competition, getting Asif interviewed to anybody they can get hold of. And Asif, who was denied this glamour for eight years in dungeons, is now relishing the spotlight in prestigious magazines like the Newsweek. Therein lies the biggest challenge for Asif Zardari. As the new order replaced the old, the stakes going higher, people are desperate to cross party lines. Asif may have acquired lots of dubious wisdom in jail, but he remains a little extra mortal when it comes to sycophancy.
The PML-Q exploited Zardari’s poor credibility and judgment by jumping on a statement he made that he might be able to work with Musharraf after the elections.
The PML-Q took this as an admission that he would be willing to abandon the opposition parties and principle for the sake of a deal to gain power:
But a senior aide to Pakistan's President claimed the PPP was set to form a "rainbow coalition" with the pro-Musharraf PML-Q and other parties it historically regarded with distaste. "The People's Party is ready to work with Mr Musharraf and the military establishment," said Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of PML-Q. "It has been in the political wilderness for 12 years, eagerly vying for power."
A PPP-PML-Q coalition attracts a dismal level of support: 11%.
Zardari probably came up with this profoundly unpopular gambit as an attempt to personally curry favor with the United States and boost his low status with Washington, which still entertains hope of a Musharraf/PPP coalition.
There is apparent national resistance to giving the PPP and Zardari carte blanche.
If Zardari is smart, he’ll make a conservative reading of the TFT and IRI polls and satisfy himself with a plurality and a ruling coalition with the PML-N--and not try to push for an absolute majority in the National Assembly and a linkup with Musharraf, no matter how much the United States encourages and flatters him.
Something to pay attention to on election night and afterwards.