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People & Society

Elections 2018: The battle of narratives

Updated Jul 23, 2018 11:14pm
Supporters of Labor Party, a member party of opposition parties' alliance the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), shout slogans during a public meeting in Lahore, Pakistan in February 2008 | Photo by M Arif, White Star
Supporters of Labor Party, a member party of opposition parties' alliance the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), shout slogans during a public meeting in Lahore, Pakistan in February 2008 | Photo by M Arif, White Star

Three narratives have defined the 2018 elections: service delivery, corruption and respect for vote. The Herald-SDPI opinion survey, conducted between June 25 and July 12 this year, elicited public opinions regarding these narratives to ascertain which of them is resonating with the voters and whether there are any electorally significant narratives that are missing from the media discourse on the upcoming elections.

Service delivery

In the months leading up to the elections, there has been an intense media debate on how well the provincial governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have performed on the delivery of public services. The parties ruling the two provinces, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) respectively – and to a lesser extent, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Sindh – have used myriad data sources to make a case for how the delivery of healthcare, education, communication and transport infrastructure, and other public services has dramatically improved in their jurisdictions since the last general elections in 2013. The survey put these claims to the test of public opinion to ascertain whether public service delivery has improved, stayed the same or worsened over the last five years. Two distinct regional variations have emerged out of the exercise:

1-Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

The survey results show that the efforts of both PML-N and PTI in the realm of healthcare and education have paid off. A majority of the respondents in both Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa feel that the provision of these two services has improved. The difference in public perceptions in the two provinces on this count is, in fact, too narrow to distinguish statistically. A majority of the survey respondents in both provinces also attribute this improved performance to their respective provincial governments. Both PML-N and PTI can, therefore, rest easy knowing that they have satisfied a fair share of citizens in the province they have ruled since 2013 and that this may create a pro-incumbency effect in their favour.

As far as the provision of transport is concerned, a greater proportion of the respondents in Punjab compared to those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa reports an improvement. Similarly, public perception on improvements in electricity provision is significantly higher in Punjab than in other provinces.

The credit (or blame) for the state of electricity provision is given by two-thirds of the respondents in both Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to PML-N’s federal government. This implies that the high satisfaction with improvement in electricity provision among the respondents from Punjab may help the party on polling day but poorer levels of satisfaction on the same count in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa may hurt it in that province.

It is heartening to note that the respondents in both the provinces perceive law and order to have improved since the last election: half of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s and 70 per cent of Punjab’s respondents report a positive change, though the relatively smaller number for the former province is likely to have been driven by the unique terrorism-related challenges in maintaining law and order there.

The provision of water is where the provincial governments of PML-N and PTI have performed poorly. Less than a third of the respondents in either province state that the provision of water has improved; close to half state it has stayed the same and 20-30 per cent say it has gotten worse.

2-Sindh and Balochistan

Both Sindh and Balochistan are lagging markedly behind Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as far as public perceptions of improved service delivery are concerned. Less than a quarter of the survey respondents in Sindh feel that healthcare, education, water and transport services have improved since 2013. Balochistan fares even worse.

Law and order is the only area where close to a majority of the respondents from Sindh report improvement. Only a quarter of them, however, attribute this to the provincial government. This gives rise to what many observers term as the perpetual puzzle of rural Sindh’s politics: how does PPP continue to command the support of a majority in the region despite such poor perceptions of public service delivery? We provide an answer to this puzzle in the accompanying article that analyses public perceptions on regional inequality.

Corruption: a polarising narrative

The high level of satisfaction with public service delivery among the respondents from Punjab raises an important question: why has PML-N’s electoral lead in the province declined relative to 2013 despite such positive perceptions? The answer to this question may be a decisive factor in the 2018 elections.

One popular answer points towards Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal as prime minister over corruption charges as the main cause for the fall in PML-N’s support in Punjab. The survey, however, finds that public opinion is strongly divided along party lines on the issue of corruption: 81 per cent of the respondents in Punjab who intend to vote for PML-N say the party is honest whereas 66 per cent of those who intend to vote for PTI in the province consider PML-N to be a dishonest party.

The group whose perception of PML-N’s honesty (or dishonesty) will matter the most in the upcoming elections is the undecided voter in Punjab. The survey finds that this group of respondents does not have a clear view on the subject: 27 per cent of them declare PML-N to be dishonest compared to 20 per cent who see it as honest; almost half (48 per cent) state that it is neither honest not dishonest or that they simply do not know. Whether this ambiguity among the undecided voters in Punjab will result in sizable electoral gains for PTI remains an open question.

Respect for vote: a constituency to be tapped

PML-N has countered the corruption narrative with its own rallying cry: ‘vote ko izzat do’ (give respect to the vote). Since PML-N’s prospects of forming the next federal government are centered on Punjab, the resonance of this campaign strategy depends on the extent to which undecided voters in Punjab are dissatisfied with the state of democracy. Here, the survey suggests both good and bad news for PML-N.

The good news is that 34 per cent of the undecided voters in Punjab are dissatisfied with the extent to which the vote is respected in Pakistan — compared to only 20 per cent who are satisfied. This indicates that there is a significant portion of these undecided voters who think their vote is disrespected and, hence, may be amenable to PML-N’s message on polling day. The bad news is that an even greater proportion (41 per cent) of them is unclear about the issue. In the final analysis, any electoral gains that may accrue to PML-N on this count in Punjab will depend on whether or not Nawaz Sharif’s recent incarceration has increased the importance of respect for vote among the province’s undecided voters.

What matters to voters?

The ambiguity on corruption and respect for vote may lead the undecided voters to base their voting decisions on other factors which leads to an obvious question: what are the most important issues that voters think political parties should focus on? Purchasing power is by far the biggest issue for them — reported by 43 per cent of undecided voters in Punjab. The provision of water is a distant second – reported by 14 per cent of them – and corruption, at 10 per cent, is the third most important issue for the same group of voters.

Poor performance in the delivery of water – and corruption – may be partly responsible for the reduction in PML-N’s lead in Punjab. This is not to say that PML-N’s public service delivery initiatives in other areas – such as education, healthcare, transport and electricity – have had no effect on voters. These were perhaps the issues that people cared more about in 2013 than anything else. With improvements in them, the voters now appear to have moved on to other issues.

It’s the macroeconomy, stupid!

Economists and financial markets have been raising alarm bells over the build-up of Pakistan’s sovereign debt and ability of future governments to maintain the current levels of public service provision while having to shoulder the increasing burden of repaying this debt. PML-N has downplayed these concerns, pointing towards infrastructure projects and public service investments as a fair price to pay for the rising debt burden. How do citizens perceive the issue?

The survey results indicate that the ultimate arbiter in this debate – the Pakistani voter – has very pessimistic views about the debt burden and the weakening value of Pak rupee. The voter squarely blames PML-N’s federal government for what is perceived as a worsening macroeconomic situation.

The vast majority of the survey respondents – 78 per cent in Punjab, 68 per cent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 70 per cent in Sindh – believe that the burden of sovereign debt has become excessively high. A somewhat lower (but still alarmingly high) number of respondents in each province believes that the value of Pak rupee is weak or extremely weak. What makes this perception electorally consequential for PML-N is that an overwhelming number of respondents attribute these macroeconomic challenges to the party’s federal government.

It is perhaps due to this pessimistic assessment of the macroeconomy that voters’ outlook in Punjab about their personal financial future is looking either uncertain or bleak. When asked how their personal financial situation will change over the coming year, 39 per cent of the respondents in the province stated that they do not know how it will change and 23 per cent say it will either remain the same or worsen. Compared to this, 36 per cent of them say they expect it to improve. Collectively, these numbers suggest uncertainty at best and pessimism at worst, indicating a lack of confidence in the incumbent government’s macro-economic management. PML-N may, thus, end up paying the price for this — provided the voters are willing to overlook PTI’s inexperience in handling the macroeconomy.

We have explored the handling of the macroeconomy as the most salient issue for voters, one which is hurting PML-N’s public perception in the run-up to a critically important election for the party’s future. We have also explored service delivery where PML-N and PTI seem to have received positive performance reviews in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, respectively, while PPP’s performance has been perceived negatively in Sindh.

Each of these will count as voters cast their ballots but, as the survey suggests, it is undecided voters in Punjab whose role will be pivotal in deciding who forms the next federal government. It remains to be seen whether the electoral harm caused to PML-N by poor perception of the macroeconomy is countered by its positive perception on service delivery as well as by its ‘respect the vote’ campaign. Similarly, it is not clear whether PTI’s corruption narrative can swing enough undecided voters in Punjab to its side.

In this battle of narratives on a polarised playing field, it is in the interest of both the parties to channel their messages towards the relatively confused, unsure and less politically charged undecided voters in Punjab. That is where they need to focus their efforts if they want to form the next federal government.


Ali Cheema is Associate Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives. Asad Liaqat is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at Harvard University.

Data coordination: Namrah Zafar Moti, Sarah Dara and Aliyah Sahqani.

Sampling and data analysis: Ahsan Tariq, Fatiq Nadeem and Ahsan Zia Farooqui.

Data collection: Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), Punjab Lok Sujag, Nari Foundation, Yusra Jabeen, Sharjeel Arshad, Tariq Ahmed, Gulab Ahmed, Muhammad Arif, Qadir Dino, Zafar Musayni, Saddam Jamali, Mumtaz Sajidi, Fataullah Kasi, Gohar Rafique, Aimal Khan, Muhammad Arif, Aziz Khan, Abid Sherani, Masood Achakzai and Abdullah Jan.


This survey has been financially supported and supervised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), designed by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) and carried out by the Herald magazine.