The marketplace for ideas is teeming with a new kind of actor: the conspiracy theorist. This kind of theorist comes in a variety of styles. Some are cult figures that specialise in art of absurdity. Others play a politics of denial to protect vested interests. Though the commitment to freedom of speech would have us welcome even the conspiracy theorist to have his say, one would hardly expect the government itself to engage in the business of conspiracy production.
Last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a public opinion survey conducted in Pakistan in May 2011. The findings of the survey are dramatic. The president’s approval ratings stand at a dismal 11 percent, while the prime minister does a little better with positive ratings of 37 percent. The most popular leader in the country, according to the survey, is Imran Khan, with 68 percent having a favorable view. The survey indicates that 81 percent of PML(N) supporters and 61 percent of PPP supporters give the Chairman of Tehreek-e-Insaf a favourable rating.
The survey results are no doubt remarkable. More remarkable, however, is the government’s response to the Pew study. Soon after the publication of the survey results, a government spokesman “rejected” the opinion poll, and declared the study a “malicious exercise to malign Pakistani politicians and to undermine its democracy.” The spokesperson questioned the Pew Center’s “real motives and objectives for conducting this survey.”
In the world of conspiracy theory production, the government’s response would fall somewhere in between absurdity and denial. Let’s consider the various elements of the argument.
The government first alleges that Pew Center has singled out Pakistan, which it claims is evidence of the center’s ulterior motives. This accusation is false. The Pakistan survey is part of the Spring 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey conducted in 22 countries.
The government next asks, “Which segments of the population have been interviewed and what methodology has been used for this survey?” The answer to this question should be: go and find out. An entire chapter in the report answers precisely this question. The survey covers all four provinces in Pakistan and is weighted to take account of both the urban and rural population.
The spokesperson also claims that opinion polls from a segment of society can never reflect the truth. The Pew Center study has a self reported margin of error, which stands at plus or minus four percent. It is virtually impossible that a professionally conducted survey will show approval ratings of 11 percent if the actual percentage is somewhere around 80 percent.
On this point, I would suggest the government to take happily what it has received. Given the state of the economy and the culture of governance in the country, 11 percent may not be too bad. It is worth noting that roughly 15 percent of the Pakistani population, residing in FATA and in areas of instability in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was excluded from the survey. These are areas which have become battlegrounds for the US-led war on terror, and it can be assumed that the government’s popularity would be even lower in these areas. If these areas were included, we could have expected the loss of a few percentage points for those in office, and greater favorability for opposition politicians like Imran Khan who have been vocal critics of the conflict in these areas.
And now to the most fantastic accusation of all: the Pew Center’s malicious designs to undermine Pakistan’s politicians. On this point, the government should have been careful. The Pew Center is one of the most credible research institutions in the world, and attributing evil designs to organisations of this sort does not suit the Pakistani government.
For the President and Prime Minister, the survey is bad news. But, for the citizens of the country, and for governance itself, the survey brings excellent news. It indicates that the Pakistan’s voting population has begun to think in terms of issue-based politics, and is willing to change his or her traditional allegiance to a party. The increasingly aware citizenry no longer wants to see colorful displays of charismatic populist leaders who once used to rule Pakistan. The citizens want electricity, jobs and the end of a culture of corruption. Above all, the citizens demand dignity and justice.
Besides elections that are marred by a culture of patronage, the people of Pakistan have spoken through this remarkable opinion poll. The Pew report is not a “malicious” document, but a warning sign for those who consider it their birthright to be in positions of power in this country. A true democrat, the government should remember, does not reject public opinion. The Pakistani citizenry may now want results, and if you do not deliver, the next survey may take the popularity further down from eleven percent to the single digit.
The writer is concurrently pursuing his Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD) degree at Yale Law School and a PhD in Politics at Princeton University. He may be contacted at [email protected]