Polling Pakistan —Brian Cloughley

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Is the fact that over 90 percent of FATA residents think that the Taliban should not have the right to use weapons an indication that there may be some action taken against them by the tribes themselves?

There was a most interesting poll taken in Pakistan in October last year by an organisation called the International Republican Institute (IRI), which has nothing to do with the Republican Party in the United States. Its researchers asked all sorts of questions and some of the answers were intriguing, to put it mildly.

The Institute didn’t go into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas but there was a separate poll there in 2008, conducted by the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, and it has some remarkable data too.

59 percent of those polled by IRI considered that the economic situation in Pakistan would become worse this year. And it was the economy and associated matters rather than terrorism that seemed to be the main concern of almost everyone — which is understandable as prices have gone up and 77 percent of people thought there was “a serious problem” in supplies of wheat, petrol, gas and electricity.

The atmosphere and prospects are grim, and one worrying sentiment about the future was expressed by 67 percent of people who considered that things would not be better “now that we have a democratically-elected parliament and president,” which was in line with the fact that only 31 percent approved of the government.

This is a sad indication of how people regard politicians — although in another surprise, Mr Nawaz Sharif was the most popular of them, with 60 percent liking him, as against 20 percent preferring Mr Zardari, which might indicate that people’s memories are very short indeed.

Are we to believe that almost two-thirds of the voting population has forgotten the terrible years of Nawaz Sharif? It can’t be claimed that President Zardari is a role model, but Mr Sharif has a shocking record of arrogant intolerance, economic incompetence and vicious malevolence.

It seems that many people have forgotten the behaviour of Mr Sharif, as described in a Human Rights Watch report in 1999, which noted “increasing discontent with the Sharif administration, stemming from its crackdown on opposition political activity and increasing encroachments on civil liberties… The government responded [to formation of the Grand Democratic Alliance political grouping] with overt attempts to suppress opposition political activity. A GDA call for a protest rally in Karachi led to the arrest from September 24-26 of more than 1,000 opposition activists throughout the city, including much of the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party…”

Then the UN recorded that “Corruption charges were selectively brought and pursued against members of the opposition. For example, in April [1999; at the height of Sharif’s power], former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Zardari were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment… Benazir Bhutto remained outside the country; Asif Zardari continued to be detained on other charges.”

In October 1999, the Economist was forthright in commenting that “Almost anywhere but Pakistan the plug would surely be yanked out. With days to go before an IMF mission was due to put the finishing touches to a rescue package, the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, announced a 30% increase in electricity charges. This is lunacy of a high order… Every newspaper carries a litany of murder prompted by greed or group hatred. An economic implosion would make things worse… the Sharif brothers seem to think that Pakistan can have sharia and constitutional democracy, holy wars and a peaceful society, economic populism and an IMF bail-out. The bet on the bail-out is a long shot. The other gambles are doomed.”

It would hardly be in Pakistan’s best interests for there to be a rerun of these awful years; yet Mr Sharif is three times as popular as Mr Zardari.

But the poll does have some heartening news, because it found that Qazi Hussain Ahmad has a one percent approval rating, which seems to indicate disapproval of him and what he stands for. This could be linked with the poll question — “Religious extremism is a serious problem in Pakistan — agree or disagree?” — with which 60 percent agreed, although the “disagree” side was 34 percent, which is a bit disconcerting.

But this brings us to the poll in FATA by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).

The CRSS in Islamabad hasn’t got the financial resources of the globally-reaching IRI, but its investigations in FATA were well-conducted and illuminating. When questioned as to whether “religio-political parties are true representatives of FATA people,” 84 percent said No, and the poll shows an amazing 95 percent agreeing that females should be educated. Further, 92 percent think that the Taliban and people like Fazlullah do not “represent true Islam”. Fazlullah’s personality cult has nothing to do with religion, and he has done his evil best to destroy Swat, so it is not surprising he is not top of the pops.

What are we to make of the overall significance of the polls, however? Is Nawaz Sharif’s popularity rating an indication that people will actually vote for him next time round? And is the fact that over 90 percent of FATA residents think that the Taliban should not have the right to use weapons an indication that there may be some action taken against them by the tribes themselves?

There are mixed signals coming from the citizens of Pakistan, although the message seems to be that strong leadership would be welcomed and that Fazlullah-style criminals will not be tolerated. The connection is there; but the problem is that for the moment, Fazlullah and his ilk seem to be the only ones exercising pressure and strength. Unless the government deals energetically with the extremists in FATA and Swat, the situation can only get worse. But Nawaz Sharif isn’t the answer.

Brian Cloughley’s book about the Pakistan army, War, Coups and Terror, has just been published by Pen & Sword Books (UK) and is distributed in Pakistan by Saeed Book Bank



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