By all accounts, 30 October, 2011, marked a potential turning point in the build-up to Pakistan's next general election. Imran Khan drew crowds of over 250,000 to a speech in Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore, as leader of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), surprising rivals and supporters alike with one of the largest political rallies in the nation's history.
A number of heavyweight political figures have since announced their decision to join the PTI, including some thirty current and former ministers, several of whom convened a press conference on 20th December to declare their defections variously from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the 'N', 'F' and 'Q' factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Prominent PTI-converts now include: Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's ex-Foreign Minister; Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former Foreign Minister; Syed Iftikhar Hussain Gilani, former Law Minister and founding member of the PPP; Iftikhar-uddin Khattak, former Minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; Umar Farooq Khan Miankhel, former Member of the National Assembly; and various others such as Jehangir Khan Tareen, Jamal Laghari, Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan, Ishaq Khan Khakwani and Syed Nusrat Ali Shah.
As Dr Kamal Munir, Professor at Cambridge University and a frequent commentator on Pakistan, noted for this research: the movement of senior political figures towards the PTI means the party is now extending its political base across both urban and rural parts of the electorate.
These events have duly been interpreted as a wake-up call to Khan's political rivals. They also suggest two significant opinion-trends among both politicians and ordinary voters: a new willingness to abandon established parties and growing consideration of the PTI as a serious alternative.
Whereas before the Lahore rally the PTI had credibility, it now looks to have increasing viability.
YouGov-Cambridge, (the academic research arm of the global pollster, YouGov), conducted three separate studies of public opinion in urban Pakistan over the course of 2011. Results show that Khan is the most popular political figure by far, and the PTI is seen by large majorities of respondents as notably more popular, more capable and more trustworthy than establish parties such as the PPP and PML-N.
Polls also suggest there are two main elements in the PTI's manifesto driving its popularity: first, its stand against corruption, and second, its critique of official policy towards America, Afghanistan and the tribal areas, which closely reflects the views of many Pakistanis.
Imran Khan and his party the most popular by far
The order of popularity remains largely the same in separate areas of policy.
On eradicating corruption and nepotism...
On tackling Pakistan's foreign policy problems...
On tackling Pakistan's economic problems...
On dealing with lack of access to constant electricity...
On solving Pakistan's escalating food crisis...
No.1 priority for respondents: fighting corruption
Many Pakistanis seem to view their country as a kind of 'klepto-state', where the core institutions of national and local governance are plagued by endemic corruption and graft. Consequently, the fight against corruption is cited by respondents as consistently more important than other perceived priorities and threats.
Thinking about different kinds of corruption...
When asked what they think the main priorities of the Pakistani government should be, respondents ranked "eliminating corruption" in clear first, with "education" second and "economic growth" third, followed by "reducing terrorism" (4th), "employment" (5th), "political stability" (6th), "healthcare" (7th) and "improving relations with India" in last place (8th).
When respondents were asked what democratic values they would most like to see improve in Pakistan, they ranked "a transparent judicial system" and "transparency in government" in first and second places respectively, followed by "equal rights" (4th), "freedom of religion" (5th), "the emergence of new political parties" (6th), "political freedom" (7th), "freedom of expression" (8th), "freedom of the press", (9th) "freedom of privacy" and "women's rights" (10th).
It is politically relevant, therefore, that the PTI is viewed by respondents as the only party with a genuine intention to tackle corruption.
PTI policies on the US and the tribal areas closely reflect the views of many Pakistanis
It should be noted that popularity in Pakistani politics doesn't necessarily translate into political power and the survey samples in question are focused on urban rather than rural areas. Notwithstanding, the lead of Khan and the PTI is dramatic, highlighting significant political momentum among key demographics.
Accordingly, as a Pakistan-advisor to YouGov-Cambridge, Professor Anatol Lieven suggests that senior parliamentarians are potentially not the only establishment heavyweights looking to associate with the PTI's growing popularity. Lieven predicts that the PTI might win enough seats to take second place behind PML-N. If this were the case, senior military figures could be looking to support the PTI for several reasons.
First, the Army remains highly apprehensive towards a possible return to power for the PML-N since Sharif attempted to replace General Pervez Musharraf as Chief of the Army and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with his preferred choice, General Ziauddin Butt, in 1999 - an event that ultimately led Musharraf to depose Sharif as Pakistan's leader through a military coup. In this scenario, the PTI could be seen a useful political ally for the Army in preventing Sharif and the PML-N from entirely dominating the Parliamentary Assembly.
Second, the PTI's foreign and security policy holds growing resonance within military ranks, where anger towards government intervention and US sovereign violations in the tribal areas have sparked fears of a possible officer-soldier cleave, and even a worst-case scenario of mutiny. The PTI's strategy includes the complete withdrawal of US/NATO forces from Afghanistan and Pakistan; a negotiated settlement with tribal militants in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan who agree to make a break from, and to help isolate, al Qaeda; the use of smaller scale targeted raids by Pakistani commando forces to replace the use of drones and helicopter gunships; and an end to Pakistani reliance on US aid (which totalled approximately $2.7 billion in 2010 for security purposes and $1.7 billion for civilian aid).
As survey results indicate, in contrast to the actions of the Zadari government, the PTI's suggested policies towards America and the tribal areas closely reflect the preference of many Pakistanis.
A majority of respondents also view the Afghan Taliban as engaged in a legitimate war of resistance against foreign aggressors with a right to play their role in the future governance of Afghanistan.
This should not be confused, however, with attitudes towards the Pakistani Taliban.
Only 13% of respondents think their government should support the Taliban living inside Pakistan, while 49% believe the government should use every means at its disposal to push them out and keep them out.
In other words, a majority of respondents respect the Taliban's right to exist, to govern and to fight for their cause north of the Durand Line, but a majority of respondents also reject the Taliban's right to exist and grow in Pakistan.
These trends are linked with significantly low levels of trust and support for the US.
On a related issue, respondents believe that suicide attacks in Pakistan are mostly caused not by religious extremism, but rather by Pakistan's official support of US policies along with economic inequality and corruption.
When asked what reasons best account for why people undertake suicide attacks in Pakistan, respondents ranked "Pakistani support for US military operations" at the top of the list. This was followed in second place by "Pakistani relations with the US". Interestingly, "Religious extremism" was ranked fifth after "Economic inequality and poverty" (3rd place) and "Corrupt government" (4th place).
The full version of this report can be found on the YouGov-Cambridge website here.
Fieldwork was undertaken in three waves (Wave 1: 4th-5th May, 2011 with a total sample-size of 1039; Wave 2: 4th-11th August, 2011 with a total sample-size of 1097; Wave 3: 5th-14th September, 2011, with a total sample-size of 1020) and is broadly representative of the online population in Pakistan. See here for full survey results of Wave 1, Wave 2 and Wave 3.