Do Pakistan’s voters want change?
The latest Gallup Pakistan survey shines a light on how public opinion has been changing about the country’s political leaders, the government’s economic performance and potential support for a new party. The approval rating for opposition leader Imran Khan (61%) puts him way ahead of Mian Nawaz Sharif (36%) or PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto (36%) with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif trailing (at 32%) and Maryam Nawaz doing only marginally better (34%) than her uncle.
This endorses the generally held view that Khan’s popularity has soared since he was ousted from power by a parliamentary vote of confidence last year. His approval rating then, as reflected in a Gallup poll of January 2022 was 36%. Meanwhile, positive opinion about the Sharifs has fallen substantially since PML-N assumed power last April as the lead party in a coalition government. Just over a year ago, Nawaz Sharif’s positive rating was 55% according to Gallup’s January 2022 survey. Even Shahbaz Sharif’s was 51%.
This clearly reflects the curse of incumbency. People have a more positive view of political leaders when they are out of power than in government. This is not surprising and happens all over the world. But incumbency by itself does not necessarily or automatically lead to a drop in approval ratings. That happens when there is public disappointment or disillusionment with leaders and governments over their performance. People’s perception of whether or not political leaders have delivered and lived up to their expectations is what produces the drop in positive ratings.
Linked to this is another finding of the latest Gallup survey which concerns who respondents hold responsible for the present economic instability and soaring inflation. 62% attribute the deteriorating economy to the ruling coalition and not the predecessor PTI government. This again underlines how significantly PDM parties have lost political ground due to incumbency and public perception of the ruling alliance’s failure to competently manage the economy. Public hardship due to grim economic conditions is reflected in an alarming survey finding. According to this, one in five respondents said they or someone in their household lost their jobs in the past six months.
Although it is important not to over-read the survey in this regard, it does seem people want another political option and may be ready for change and a break from the past.
Perhaps the most significant conclusion that can be drawn from this survey is from its finding that captures people’s desire for political change. The majority of people polled said they would support a new party comprising honest members and technocrats. 53% said they would abandon the party they back at present and support and vote for a new party. According to this finding, the largest proportion of party voters (52%) ready to switch their loyalties to a new party belonged to PTI.
This echoes and validates the anecdotal evidence as well as observations by political analysts who have been noting people’s weariness with non-stop political confrontation between PDM parties and PTI. Years of political squabbles with no end in sight was bound to negatively affect the public’s view of established parties. With television and social media amplifying these battles and the unseemly rhetoric that has accompanied it, this has predictably turned more and more people off. Two of the three major parties in any case have now been around for decades, appear faded and jaded and have done little to reinvigorate themselves or adopt programs that capture the public imagination or represent people’s aspirations. They remain dynastic parties and have not been able to attract youth who could potentially play a determining role in the next election. Both parties need to reinvent themselves to be in step with today’s Pakistan.
Because none of the three major parties have offered any programme or policy plans all of them may now be seen by the public as lacking solutions to Pakistan’s multiple and vexed problems. PTI may be outpolling others in leaders’ rankings but as a party may be viewed as more of the same by people. Although it is important not to over-read the survey in this regard, it does seem people want another political option and may be ready for change and a break from the past.
While the ground may be ripe for a new party to emerge, there are limitations on how this could be possible in the near term. The main reason for this is that political parties in the country have, with few exceptions (Jamaat-e-Islami) been organised around personalities and dominated by them, even becoming a vehicle of that personality’s ambition. If parties follow the tradition of being leader-centric there is no personality visible yet on the political horizon who can assemble a new party. That doesn’t, of course, mean one cannot emerge over time but a real break from the past would be if a party that emerged is programme and policy oriented rather than personality based, and can thus evolve into a truly modern organisation.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha