Two new surveys of public opinion in Pakistan deliver generally good news about the future of that country—and bad news for the future of administration policy, which has been tied so closely to President Pervez Musharraf. That policy seems increasingly untenable, with a new poll sponsored by the International Republican Institute finding that 75 percent favor his resignation and only 16 percent are opposed.
His approval ratings were positive not long ago; now they are about as low as you can go, and falling fast. That message is reinforced in another survey from Terror Free Tomorrow which found that 70 percent of Pakistanis want Musharraf to resign immediately.
But while turning against Washington’s favorite, Pakistanis are also increasing disenchanted with Islamist extremists. Terror Free Tomorrow reports that Al Qaeda and associated groups have lost half of their support in the past six months:
In August, 46 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of Bin Laden—that’s down to 24 percent now, while Al Qaeda has dropped from 33 to 18 percent, the Taliban from 38 percent to 19 percent, and other related radical Islamist groups from nearly half of the Pakistani public with a favorable view to less than a quarter today. Significantly, if Al Qaeda were on the ballot as a political party in the February 18th election, only 1 percent of Pakistanis would vote for them. (The Taliban would draw just 3 percent of the vote.)
The survey reveals that support for the extremists has even dropped in the North-West Frontier Province where they had been previously been making gains: “Favorable opinions of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province have dropped to single digits. And while in TFT’s last survey, 70 percent in the NWFP expressed a favorable opinion of Bin Laden—that’s now plunged to only 4 percent.
Far from flocking to the extremists, the surveys reveal, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis support one of two relatively moderate opposition parties—the Pakistan People’s Party that was led by the late Benazir Bhutto and the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif, with the former enjoying more than twice the support of the latter.
The bad news is that most Pakistanis still oppose taking an active role in the War on Terror. According to the IRI poll: “only 33 percent of Pakistanis supported the Army fighting extremists in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas and just nine percent felt that Pakistan should cooperate with the United States in its war on terror.” (The results appeared to be inadvertently flipped in a chart published in the Washington Post.)
It is results like that which have led the Bush administration to not push very hard for democracy in Pakistan. Yet our supposedly close ally, Musharraf, has failed to stop the terrorists from making major gains; indeed there is considerable evidence that members of his own intelligence service conspire with the Taliban and other extremists. Notwithstanding the opposition to close cooperation with the United States, the overall picture painted in this surveys should make us more sanguine about the return to democracy. The more that extremists have carried out attacks within Pakistan itself, the more they have lost support. A government with more popular legitimacy than Musharraf now enjoys could potentially also have more success in harnessing popular sentiment to take action against the fanatics.
That’s far from a certainty. What is certain is that it will not be possible to stick with Musharrar too much longer given his continuing loss of support, which may accelerate if he is seen to tamper with the results of an election that will be held next Monday.