Why no protests against emergency?
Tuesday, December 11, 2007Dr Ijaz Shafi GilaniA key political question on the political situation prevailing in the country is whether elections should be boycotted or not. Politicians are divided on the subject (as evidenced most recently by the PML-N's announcement on Sunday that it would go ahead and participate in the elections). And interestingly, so is the public. A recent poll showed that a majority (56 percent) was in favour of boycott, while 41 percent favoured participation in the election – the remaining three percent were undecided. The opinion was sought in mid-November from 1,369 men and women across the large and small cities, towns and villages of all four provinces. My experience shows that public views on a subject such as this, where political leaders are themselves divided, are flexible, if not volatile. So we might witness a change in it as the political situation evolves. The poll did not find a noticeable difference between rural and urban views on this subject. If anything, the pro-boycott sentiment in rural areas was higher than in urban. But this might change as and if the national mood for election picks up, and if key political leaders make up their mind to go ahead with the elections. What is the public response to restrictions on private TV channels? To begin with, the judiciary and the media are the two major gainers in public opinion and trust during the last one year. As opposed to this, institutions of the state, government, parliament, the police and the army, have all lost out. A survey measuring change in trust in institutions shows the following gains and losses in public trust over a period of roughly two years. The gainers were the judiciary, by 17 percent and the media, 12 percent. The losers were: government, 41 percent; parliament 22 percent; the police 24 percent and the army 12 percent. These polls were carried out by the International Republican Institute among cross-sections of 1,000 or more men and women.On the specific issue of restrictions against cable TV, a Gallup Pakistan straw poll showed that 80 percent of Pakistanis opposed the restrictions against Geo and ARY-One (both were off the air at the time the poll was held). Eighteen percent were in favour of the prohibition and the remaining were undecided. When asked should their transmissions be resumed or not, an even higher percentage, 88 percent, responded in the affirmative, 10 percent said they should not be restored while two percent were undecided. Another question raised by some is: Are people really bothered by emergency rule? Does it affect their lives in any way? Opposition to the imposition of emergency remained unchanged. It was slightly higher, at 71 percent, towards the end of November than at the start of the emergency, when it stood at 68 percent. But views were more complex on whether emergency rule affected people's personal lives. I composed these phrases to describe the variety of moods and asked our sample which one captured their state of mind.Forty-two percent of the respondents agreed with the following phrase: "The current state of affairs in the country bothers me, but that does not affect my day-to-day life." Thirty-eight percent said that were "bothered" and that it also "adversely affected my day-to-day life." And, finally 18 percent said that the emergency was "not much to be bothered about."These statements may or may not reflect the reality of people's lives. But those are their perceptions. Roughly one in five believes the country is doing fine. The remaining four are equally divided between those who feel emergency rule in the country adversely affects their personal lives, and others who feel bothered, but say it does not affect them personally. I would tend to infer from this that the people of Pakistan are not apathetic to what is happening around them. There is a relatively high level of awareness and consciousness about how they are governed and nearly 40 percent have a perception that the suspension of constitutional government affects their personal lives. The sentiment runs across the country, including the rural areas. Opinion research does not support the thesis that constitutional government is a concern of the urban intellectual class while the ordinary people are interested in their daily chores. Firstly, ordinary citizens seem concerned, and secondly, a near- majority appears to draw a link between governance and the rigours of daily chores.There is still another popular question by those who say they are at a loss. They see widespread disapproval of emergency rule, and yet very few are on the streets agitating against it. Why this mismatch and what explains it? When asked in the poll whether it was right (advisable) or wrong to organise agitation and rallies against emergency rule, the replies were sharply divided between those who favoured agitation (43 percent) and those who were against such an approach (40 percent) – this despite the fact that 71 percent in the same group oppose emergency rule. This means that a large section of opponents of emergency rule do not favour active agitation against it. Why? Unfortunately, this is a matter of speculation since I have no data to explain it empirically. Perhaps there is a sense of insecurity about the country and a fear of anarchy. It could also relate to a low level of trust in the political leadership which would organise the agitation. The alternatives to politicians in the public space, such as lawyers, students of elite schools and the media, are appreciated but perceived to be distant. One could also suggest that there is a new heightened sense of civic awareness, as a result of which street agitation is not seen as the appropriate channel to express political opposition. There is also the argument that the choices have been reduced to highly civic and decent democratic disputation on the one hand and armed resistance on the other. The middle ground of civil-disobedience- type agitation on the streets has been squeezed out. Presently Musharraf's government is witnessing both. A silent but widespread civic dissent against martial law is prevalent across the country and a violent armed resistance exists on its tiny and remote periphery in the Tribal Areas and Swat. Since the middle ground appears to have been squeezed out, a vast majority of civic dissenters are cautious that innocent agitation and civil disobedience could unknowingly swing to the other end of the pendulum. One may be giving too much credit to the wisdom of the ordinary dissenting man and woman, but apparently they are fearful of anarchy, while the rulers' actions make them wonder whether they should really come out on the streets and launch an agitation. Nevertheless, the basic contradiction remains that while most people are opposed to emergency rule the streets are empty.
The writer holds a doctorate from MIT and is a specialist in public opinion research.