RECENTLY, the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) published a report, authored by researchers Dr Ali Cheema and Asad Liaqat, summarising political attitudes of voters in three National Assembly constituencies of Lahore (NA-121, 122 and 124). The report goes to considerable lengths in both laying out its methodology, which is highly robust, and in stressing the applicability and depth of its findings only to the three constituencies surveyed.
There are four major findings from the survey results: the first is that voters are concerned most about economic issues, such as household purchasing power and to a lesser extent, unemployment. Corruption figures as an important factor for a sizeable minority of voters, while issues surrounding service delivery in education, health, electricity, and water are also of some concern.
Secondly, there is cautious optimism among voters about their own conditions. A majority felt that their condition had remained stable in the preceding year. Looking to the future, 48 per cent feel that their financial conditions will improve to some degree in the coming year, while another 7pc expect to experience a substantial improvement. While direct attribution of this improvement is difficult to assess, the survey shows 40pc of respondents feel the government tackled their issues fairly well, while roughly the same number were on the fence. The report calls this finding ‘measured praise’ for the PML-N’s performance.
Thirdly, while there is considerable polarisation within the electorate on the honesty of the ruling party’s current leadership, there seems to be far less doubt about their ability to move Pakistan forward on its development trajectory. A sizable 60pc of respondents believe Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif are capable of taking Pakistan into the league of developed nations. On the other hand, the corresponding figure for Imran Khan is slightly under 27pc.
A report shows that the PTI continues to trail the PML-N in party support and voting intent in the constituencies surveyed.
Finally, the PTI continues to trail the PML-N in party support and voting intent in all three constituencies surveyed. While the ruling party can count on the support of a plurality of voters, there remains a sizable pool that is as yet undecided. These voters will likely be key in determining electoral outcomes.
As the researchers point out repeatedly, the results cannot be generalised beyond these three constituencies. At a broader level, one could also make the case that constituencies in Lahore are not representative of urban constituencies elsewhere in the province or indeed the country.
The provincial capital is the ruling party’s hometown, where it probably enjoys a degree of affinity unmatched elsewhere. It happens to be a highly prosperous city, with the UNDP estimating the incidence of poverty at less than 10pc of its population (compared to nearly 38pc nationwide). These factors along with its considerable development expenditure may be why public service delivery concerns figure less prominently in the voter’s imagination.
Nonetheless, the findings of support and ‘measured praise’ for the ruling party are in line with both nationally representative surveys, and the (admittedly less rigorous) observations of political analysts. The PML-N continues to hold a reasonably strong position in the one province that matters most.
At a broader level, these findings may also hold a degree of relevance for the campaigns of the major parties ahead of the 2018 general election. In due course, similar surveys will provide snapshots of voter concerns and intentions in other constituencies both in the province and elsewhere. These coupled with what we know from the IDEAS survey in Lahore provide the material for both the ruling party and the opposition to construct its political messaging.
Over the past decade, the gradual development of a national media market has reconfigured the scope of election campaigns. One outcome of this reconfiguration is that while constituency-specific factors, candidate selection, and micro-realities are of great importance, the core campaign is one based on messaging that works nationwide. In 2008, the media’s slant towards the lawyers’ movement and the struggle for democracy were in part responsible for raising the profile of opposition parties, especially in the urbanised GT road belt of Punjab.
Similarly, in 2013, the framing of a national electricity crisis as the central pillar of the election campaign likely helped the PML-N win over many voters in its home province. Similar trends can be witnessed in India, where the BJP’s mass media campaign in 2014 promised a nationwide revival in development fortunes with Modi at the helm.
If, all else being equal, the trends we see in these three constituencies of Lahore pop up in many other places, it puts the PML-N in a reasonably good position, while it poses a challenge for the PTI’s existing brand of politics. What Sharif & co would have to do for re-election is to continue to focus on their development-centric messaging, and run a PR drive showcasing whatever their party has done. Since this will essentially be sloganeering meant for instant consumption, it gives them the space to play around with the truth to some degree.
On the other hand, the complication for the PTI is that its continued focus on corruption runs the risk of being seen as a moral crusade rather than a developmental issue. If the numbers of the IDEAS survey in Lahore hold in other constituencies, it would mean that voters rank household finances as their number one concern. By corollary, support for the PML-N in the numbers that we currently have also means that the honesty of political elites, while being a polarising issue, is of less concern than their ability to tackle development issues.
Imran Khan’s campaign team for 2018 will have to plausibly link the slogan of anti-corruption with Pakistan’s impoverished economic conditions. Their biggest challenge, however, is that this will be much harder to demonstrate when — as the IDEAS survey currently shows — voters feel that their financial situation is stable or improving.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2017