Polling Pakistanis

Reacting to the crisis in Pakistan, Ali Eteraz, over at the Guardian, argues that only opportunistic opposition politicians, a handful of lawyers, and decadent democracy-addled Westerners are likely to get too upset by events of the past few days.

Ordinary people yearn for stability, he says, and are enjoying the economic good times Musharraf has inspired. Even ‘democracy-promoting analysts’ (spit) are forced to admire the President’s economic management, he argues.

Victor Davis Hansen, writing from the other side of the Atlantic (and across a rather big political divide), is a reluctant supporter of democracy (‘ultimately our only choice’), but an ardent critic of Pakistan and its people:

It would be hard to think of a bigger mess than Pakistan: nuclear; half the population radically Islamic; vast sanctuaries for the architects of 9/11; a virulent anti-Americanism in which aid and military credits are demanded but never appreciated; dictatorship at odds with America’s professed support for Middle-East constitutional government.

But are these beliefs backed up the facts?

According to the best available polling – conducted every six three months by the International Republican Institute – no. According to the latest poll (pdf), conducted in September, when the situation in the country was deteriorating, but not yet critical:

Pakistanis were deeply concerned by the direction in which their country was heading, with 73% believing things were getting worse. What is striking is how rapidly pessimism had grown. Only 44% had believed things were going downhill a year ago; 59% just three months back.

Contrary to Davis Hansen’s belief, the population seemed highly agitated by rising extremism. 74% agreed that it was a serious problem for the country, only 21% disagree. 57%, meanwhile, believed that Taliban and Al Qaida operations in Waziristan were a serious challenge.

However, economic concerns were much more pressing. Asked about the key issues they’d vote for in an election: inflation came top (37%), followed by unemployment (20%); poverty (11%); and law and order (10%).

But contra Eteraz, Pakistanis were hurting economically. 56% believed they were worse off financially than a year before (up from 34% three months previously).

Little surprise then that Musharraf’s approval rating, which was above 60% in 2006, had tanked to 21% (this would be bad even for George Bush).

In September, most people thought their President should go, with 70% sure he should resign and another 8% thinking that maybe he should. Only 23% wanted him re-elected President even if he had ‘doffed’ his uniform. No matter – the President bullied his way back into power, keeping the uniform on.

A state of emergency, the poll suggests, will have gone down like a lead balloon. In September, only 8% thought declaring an emergency would be a good idea, while 62% wanted the army completely out of politics.

In justifying suspending the constitution, Musharraf went out of his way to attack the media (“contributed to this downslide, this negative thinking, this negative projection”) and the courts (“the judiciary has interfered”).

The media and the courts are, of course, Pakistan’s most popular institutions, with an 80% and 77% approval rating respectively.

So, in a country whose population is demoralized and suffering economically, we have a spectacularly unpopular President taking on the country’s two most trusted institutions.

So where will Musharraf get his support? From the army? Maybe, but even it is losing its lustre (approval down to 70% from 82% in three months).

Or parliament? He’s left the National Assembly in place (a ‘shrewd move’ Eteraz reckons, which will keep people off the street), but it has an approval rating of only 42%. And let’s hope he doesn’t need the police. They are the most hated of all at 13%.

“If I have your companionship,” he told the Pakistani people yesterday in the Urdu portion of yesterday’s televised address. “I have no doubt, God Willing, Pakistan will be back to the forefront and this derailed train will be, God Willing, back on track.”

Perhaps Musharraf will get away with this desperate attempt to cling to power. But companionship with the people? That, I think, is one eventuality we can rule out.