That Pakistan has had a tumultuous year would be a statement unnecessarily trite — it seems all years have been tumultuous recently, distinguishable only by their degree of tumult. A year that comes at the heels of an election tends to be unique, however, laden with higher levels of expectations. Nawaz Sharif assumed office on June 4, 2013 with a decisive mandate at the federal level, an old face that nonetheless symbolised a change from the previous government. He must have known that the Pakistan he was preparing to preside over was starkly different from the one whose helm he had to relinquish in 1999. Yet, as the year progressed, it became increasingly clear that his style of leadership – centralised and autocratic, selectively confrontational but predominantly passive – has remained largely unchanged, rooted in a bygone era. Could it be then that, within a year, the anti-incumbency sentiment that helped Nawaz Sharif obtain a sweeping victory at the polls (a victory which continues to be vociferously challenged, it must be noted) has already begun turning against him?
This public opinion survey, conducted by Herald in collaboration with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, sets out to assess precisely such questions, asking people from across Pakistan – 1,354 of them – how they feel the government, at both the federal and provincial levels, performed in the past year. The results illustrate an electorate not particularly pleased: more than three quarters of the public (77 per cent) rate the performance of the federal government as no better than average, and only a marginally smaller proportion (68 per cent) feel the same way about the performance of their respective provincial governments. Of course, it is possible to interpret these results in a different manner: given that more than a third of respondents (37 per cent) rated the performance of the federal government as average, it can be argued that, actually, public verdict isn't particularly damning — after all, more than 60 per cent of respondents deem the PMLN-led government's performance as at least average, which isn't a bad score at all.
Technically speaking, both interpretations are correct. They serve to illustrate the fundamental dilemma of data: that it can be interpreted to support starkly different points of view and, yet somehow, still remain technically true. Nonetheless, a certain disenchantment does appear to pervade the survey. Middling responses, such as 'don't know', 'unchanged' and 'average', appeared to be popular answer options for many questions. One hapless respondent, on being asked to cite improvements under the current federal government, retorted 'Ittefaq Group', a reference to the sprawling Sharif family business; another scribbled 'sirf dhoka' (only fraud) in the column of the questionnaire. But is this dejection symptomatic of a deeper malaise or only natural in a post-election year, as the government busies itself with the unglamorous task of actual governance?
Surveys of this sort can only be a snapshot, an attempt to feel the pulse of a nation at a particular point in time. The fieldwork for this survey took place in May; the month immediately after has been extraordinarily eventful, even by Pakistan's chaotic standards: an airport attacked, a budget announced, a military operation launched, the leader of a political party arrested in London and protesters subjected to unprecedented levels of police brutality in Lahore. What would the 1,354 respondents of the survey have to say about these developments and to what extent would it colour their existing opinions? It is difficult to say – let’s leave that for a future survey – but it would serve politicians and policymakers well to pay close attention to public sentiment. The current government(s) has another four years in front of them – and for the sake of democracy, all political parties, including those in the opposition and on the fray, must ensure that they are allowed those four years – but eventually, another election will roll around.
— By Alizeh Kohari
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