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Election in the balance?

April 18, 2017

THE 2018 election is approaching and everyone is interested in knowing what to expect. We recently published the results of a political attitudes survey that is representative of four provincial assembly constituencies (PP 146, 147, 148 and 149) within three National Assembly constituencies (NA 121, 122 and 124) in Lahore to begin gauging the pulse of voters in key constituencies.

Our findings suggest that neither of the two main parties in these constituencies, the PML-N and PTI, are out of contention for these seats. Thirty-two per cent of potential voters remain undecided and both parties now face the opportunity to address the issues these undecided voters care about in order to nudge them in their direction.

The survey was conducted with a representative sample of 2,127 voting age adults in these four PA constituencies by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives during January and February 2017. The aim of our research is not to predict the outcome of the election but to go deep into the politics of a small number of constituencies with high versus low political competition and present insights about voter attitudes and the issues they care about. Among the 13 NA constituencies in Lahore, NA-122 was the second most closely contested, NA-121 was the fifth most closely contested and NA-124 the second least competitive in the 2013 general election. Two of our sample PP constituencies are held by the PML-N and two by PTI. Therefore, we believe our study covers an interesting variation of constituencies within Lahore and provides rich insights about voters, which has the potential to inform researchers, media and political parties.

It is important to keep in mind that our results only relate to three out of 13 National Assembly constituencies (NA 121, 122 and 124) in Lahore. This means that no statements can be made on the basis of these results at the South Asia, Pakistan, Punjab or even all Lahore level. They certainly cannot predict the result of the next general election. We explicitly mention this to caution readers about any misrepresentation of our results.


A survey gauges the pulse of voters.


We do find that among the two main contenders, the PTI (with 16pc declaring their intent to vote in its favour) is trailing behind the PML-N (with 44pc declaring their intent to vote in its favour) at this stage. What explains the higher degree of support for the PML-N? Our main finding here is that a large majority (61pc) thinks the top PML-N leadership is capable of taking Pakistan into the league of developed nations. This rating is equally high among undecideds, 66pc of whom think the top leadership capable of development.

What is the PML-N’s Achilles heel? Nawaz Sharif’s ‘honesty perception’ is trailing his ‘development perception’. This can be gauged from the fact that while 61pc of respondents perceive him as being capable of development, a lower proportion (42pc) perceive him as being honest. This difference persists among his own supporters with 84pc of declared PML-N supporters stating he is a leader capable of development while 57pc of them perceive Mr Sharif as being honest. We find a similar gap among undecided voters. If honesty in public office becomes a key issue for voters in the next general election, the PML-N could find itself in hot water. The PML-N also needs to worry about the degree to which Mr Sharif’s high development perception in the winter months is likely to be affected by the rise in load-shedding during summer.

By contrast, Imran Khan’s ‘dishonesty perception’ is lowest among all leaders by a significant margin and consistently low not just among PTI supporters (4pc) and undecideds (9pc), but even among PML-N supporters (11pc). The big challenge for Mr Khan is the low rating given by undecideds on ‘development’ (24pc). Here he lags behind Mr Sharif by 37 percentage points. If the PTI is to succeed in these constituencies, it must make a convincing case that it is a party of the economy and development.

At the heart of this story is the large proportion of undecideds (32pc) that both parties need to sway in order to win in these constituencies that represent important battlegrounds for the 2018 general election. Given the large proportion of undecideds, it would be tragic for PTI supporters if their party claims these are heartland constituencies of the PML-N and concedes them before the battle has commenced. Similarly, it would be foolish for the PML-N to think they are going to get a walk-over and stop putting in effort. Finally, rather than indulging in the politics of self-assertions and ratings, parties should be asking the important questions: who are the undecideds, what matters to them and what campaign strategies will resonate with them?

Ali Cheema is a senior research fellow at IDEAS and an associate professor of economics at LUMS.

Asad Liaqat is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2017