May 162009

rafiazakariyaThe task is a delicate one, and requires a measured and careful dance that must please two very different and demanding constituencies whose collective appeasement may not be

According to a poll published by the International Republican Institute, a conservative think tank based in the United States, President Zardari’s job approval rating among Pakistanis currently stands at 19 percent. Interestingly, the number reflects an increase in the president’s popularity from an even lower 12 percent recorded around the time of his swearing in last year.

Supporting statistics offered by the poll further substantiate the argument that the democratic leader of the nation does not enjoy the kind of broad-based public support that would allow him to lead the nation through an unprecedented economic and security crisis. When asked which leader would best be able to handle Pakistan’s problems most effectively, only 9 percent had any faith in the president’s ability to do so compared to 55 percent support for PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif.

The release of the poll comes at a particularly inopportune time for President Zardari. His visit to the United States and the media blitz across American television channels that accompanied it was wrought around the challenging task of both presenting himself as the “go-to” guy in Pakistan while also maintaining a modicum of dignity before an increasingly demanding United States.

While reviews of his performance on this latest trip are still emerging, the statistics provided by the survey beg the question of whether the unpopularity of the PPP-led coalition is based on the geopolitical realities it has been dealt or the unpopularity of its leader. Admittedly, it may not ultimately be possible to untangle the two issues given that the political fortunes of any government depend inevitably on its handling of the crises facing it as much as they do on the popularity of its leader. Add to this the Pakistani public’s near consistent anti-incumbent bent which almost always favours those in the opposition rather than in the establishment.

Consider then the larger of the two political cataclysms that have faced the Zardari government. The first was the introduction and ultimate passage of the Nizam-e Adl Regulation in Swat. According to government spokesmen, this deal enjoyed widespread support among the Pakistani population. The ratification of the Bill by the National Assembly thus was presented as an enactment of the will of the people rather than a ceding of ground by the Zardari government .

The results of the IRI survey support this assertion; according to its numbers a whopping 72 percent of Pakistanis supported a peace deal with extremists, with 80 percent supporting the imposition of sharia law in Swat. While the data was collected before the actual passage of the Nizam-e Adl Regulation, it shows that nearly 74 percent of Pakistanis thought that the peace deal would have been successful.

Ironically, however, support for the deal did not translate into support for the government that orchestrated it. According to the survey, nearly 58 percent of Pakistanis thought that the passage of the deal weakened the position of President Zardari vis-à-vis the militants. The result is curious though because it implies that the willingness of the PPP government to enter into political compromises is not translating into political dividends with the public.

It was perhaps in recognition of this fact that President Zardari, on NBC’s “Meet The Press” this past Sunday, said that he had signed the Nizam-e Adl Regulation because it had been passed by the National Assembly; he did not himself support it or think that it would succeed in bringing peace to the region.

Expectedly, the results of the survey reveal a drastic backlash against the PPP-led government and a concomitant increase in the PMLN’s popularity following the sacking and then eventual reinstatement of the Punjab government earlier this year. Nearly 62 percent of Pakistanis opposed imposition of Governor’s Rule in Punjab, with 72 percent supporting the ensuing protests that erupted in response to it.

The political crisis in Punjab led to an eventual drop of nearly 20 percent in the popularity of the PPP-led coalition and a concomitant increase in the PMLN’s popularity from somewhere around 35 percent favourability to a whopping 62 percent.

If elections were held next week, the poll asserts, 64 percent of Pakistanis would choose to vote for a coalition of religious parties led by the PMLN rather than a coalition of secular parties led by the PPP.

While the data surrounding the Nizam-e Adl Regulation and the political crisis in Punjab certainly suggests that it is these particular crises that are responsible for the fall in the Zardari government’s popularity, some data does support the assertion that the backlash is as much a result of structural factors as political factors.

Nearly 30 percent of Pakistanis asserted that a reduction in inflation would convince them to vote for another PPP government, while an additional 14 percent said that a decrease in unemployment would sway them in favour of the PPP.

If this is true, then similar challenges would also have been faced by the PMLN had it been in power when the global financial crisis and the devastating collateral effects of a civil war hit the country. Arguably, then, perhaps a PMLN leader would also have had to bear the ignominy of an approval rating in the teens when at the helm of a shaky state.

It is undoubted that President Zardari came to power under precarious circumstances and as a questionable substitute for a leader who was brutally murdered. He sits at the helm of a nation beset with structural and economic problems and struggling to hold its own against a superpower that would like to dictate its every move. Add to this the ghost of past taints and the constitutional machinations that allowed him to run for office and you have enough to alienate an already anti-incumbent political population.

The key to popularity in Pakistan is to be perceived as holding one’s own against the United States. Yet the means to financing solutions to Pakistan’s problems is to court the United States into solving them. Zardari, like Musharraf before him, thus has the unenviable task begging with dignity. Assurances for support against the Taliban and the war against Al Qaeda must thus be interspersed with calculated jibes about the complicity of the United States in creating the Taliban and the inefficacy of American military operations against Al Qaeda in Tora Bora.

The task is a delicate one, and requires a measured and careful dance that must please two very different and demanding constituencies whose collective appeasement may not be possible.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Article reproduced by permission of the author and DT.\05\16\story_16-5-2009_pg3_5

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