THE BLOG
04/05/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Democracy in Pakistan is a work in progress

Which are the most important events that happened during your lifetime, a sample of young people between 18 and 29 in Pakistan was asked for the British Council aligned Next Generation report published on 2 April. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto topped the list. It was followed by the earthquakes of 2005 which killed over 87,000 people and left millions homeless. The third event was another natural disaster: the floods of 2010-11, which affected 5 million people.

The international news coverage of Pakistan focuses predominantly on terrorism and extremism, but this report reveals a slightly different picture.

Quoted in the Next Generation report (available from the British Council Pakistan site) is the work of the IRI Survey of Public Opinion in Pakistan which has been asking the general population whether they think the country is heading in the right direction since 2006.

"Their results show an equal split between optimists and pessimists until the spring of 2007, when General Pervez Musharraf suspended the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and Pakistan's lawyers took to the streets in protest. This period also saw the siege of Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque).

"Confidence in the future continued to plummet as the former President held on to power, before recovering slightly as elections were announced. However, it again fell precipitously after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and has never really recovered."

This round-up by the Next Generation Task Force of the 31 per cent of the electorate aged between 18 and 29 is endorsed by the British Council, but comes with the disclaimer that "it does not necessarily agree with all the views expressed in it", so best to surmise that this is not entirely an official BC publication. There has been a great deal of coverage in Pakistan and in the international media that the winners in the report are the military. But the actual picture is more complex and contradictory.

For one thing 62 per cent of the young generation said they are going to vote, 12 per cent said perhaps they would, 26 per cent they wouldn't, which comes in at comparable levels to the UK and other developed countries. When asked why they were going to vote (that is, exercise the democratic right) 45 per cent said it was a citizen's duty, 25 per cent said my vote makes a different, 15 per cent said to change things, 16 per cent said other reasons.

The report continues: "Fewer than a quarter agree that democracy has benefited either themselves and their families, or Pakistan as a whole, while over half disagree (the rest are neutral). This finding is broadly consistent with the experience of other countries that have experienced a democratic transition. In Eastern Europe, for example, there was very strong enthusiasm for democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but two decades later, the public in most countries was much more sceptical. According to the Pew Research Center, the speed of political change is usually slower and more messy than voters would like. The patience of the next generation therefore becomes an important factor."

For all this there are discrepancies in the findings, which sought sample opinion from a small base and presents limited explanation of how questions were sequenced. The army, judiciary and media came out well, but you would have to have access to communications media to form opinions on these. One in four of the next generation does not have a television at home, 40 per cent have access to cable (less conservative as a result than terrestial viewers), 35 per cent only have terrestial television. The last, within the military establishment's control, puts out a diet which is anti-government, anti-minorities, pro the religious, Sunni and conservative state, and has a tendency to big up Pakistan's "enemies", of which the traditional one is India.

The conclusion of the report that political parties that can capture the needs and mood of this young generation will do well also has a question mark over it. Sixty-nine per cent of the electorate are not in this age-group.

The biggest surprise is the way that Pakistan's real difficulties are apparently rated (page 29 of the pdf): unbelievably the provision of basic services electricity, water and gas is thought by only six per cent of young people to be significant to the country's woes. Rising prices and unemployment are rated by a combined 65 per cent of those questioned. Terrorism concerns just 11 per cent, corruption 9 per cent and poverty 7 per cent.

The country has virtually no national grid, severe water problems and patchy gas supplies: day to day misery for most people. Did they put the question correctly? It's a reminder that polls and surveys are always to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Meanwhile the challenge for whichever political party or coalition parties win the election in May remain much the same as ever. To deliver good governance in the face of the various covert and overt pressures from the establishment, for which one might read, the military.

As the BBC summed it up (Taliban threats hamper secular campaign, 5 April): "Often those with the largest vote, the secular political forces, have in the past had their wings clipped repeatedly by a powerful military establishment which finds an Islamic image of the state more suited to its security needs. Now that job is being done by the Taliban."