The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Study: How Pakistan’s recent protests failed

Supporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan rally in Karachi. (Shakil Adil/AP)

Thousands of protesters have been camped out for more than a week within earshot of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house in Islamabad demanding that he resign from office. Some have carried stick figures of Sharif wearing a noose, creating a global image that the prime minister is embattled less than 15 months after he returned to office for his third term.

Yet an extensive new survey of public sentiment in Pakistan reveals that the ongoing demonstrations are hardly reflective of the views of most Pakistanis.

The annual Pew Research Center survey of Pakistan finds that 64 percent of residents have a favorable view of Sharif, a solid rating that has essentially remained constant since Sharif’s returned to power last year.

Perhaps even more important in Sharif’s bid to hold off the demonstrators, led by former cricket star Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahirul Qadri, Pakistanis' positive views about the economy have risen dramatically over the past year.

About four in ten residents now have confidence in Pakistan’s economy, compared to just 17 percent who felt that way last year. Moreover, Pew notes that 36 percent of residents are optimistic that the economy will improve over the next year, twice as many who felt that way compared to last year.

Since returning to office after years of exile in the aftermath of a 1999 military coup that ousted him from his second term as premier, Sharif has made improving Pakistan’s stagnant economy a top priority. He has authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in  construction projects, sought international assistance to try to tackle the country’s chronic energy shortages  and is working to increase trade with neighboring countries.

Without question, Pakistan remains a long way from being able to call itself a happy, prosperous nation. It’s a country where the lights can still be out for as much as 16 hours a day, polio is known as a real disease and not just a vaccine, and the U.S. dollar has a 100-to-1 advantage over the Pakistani rupee.

Yet the fact that the poll  finds that a quarter of voters now think the country is going in the right direction highlights a lifeline for Sharif as he tries to survive the political storm created by Khan and Qadri. Last year, according to Pew, just 8 percent of Pakistanis said the country was going in the right direction.

“Pakistanis are more satisfied with the direction of their country than they have been in six years,” Pew notes.

The Pew poll, which involved 1,203 face-to-face interviews, was conducted in late April and early May -- two months before Khan and Qadri mobilized their supporters to march on Islamabad.

But the poll suggests that Sharif began the summer with far more public support than Khan, whose party finished third in last year’s election but alleges that it was fraudulent.

The poll put Khan’s favorability rating at 53 percent. While still respectable in a country known for its fractious political system, Khan’s favorability rating has declined 17 percent over the past two years. That suggest that the more Pakistanis get to know Khan, who is known for his theatrics and often-inflexible stances on major issues, the less they like him.

If the poll contains any unsettling news for Sharif, it’s that his public support pales in comparison to the sky-high ratings for the country’s military.

Should the military decide that the best way to end the disruptive protest is to get rid of Sharif, it will likely be hard for the prime minister to generate broad public outrage against the move.

Nearly nine out of ten Pakistanis say the military is a positive influence in the country’s affairs – its highest level of support in a Pew poll since 2002, when former army chief Pervez Musharraf ran the country after he ousted Sharif in the 1999 coup.

In other findings, the poll reveals that Pakistan is a country that still doesn’t trust or particularly like the United States, but one where Islamic extremism is also frowned upon.

Only 14 percent of respondents have a favorable view of America, and Obama’s approval rating stands at just 7 percent. But the number of Pakistanis who hold a negative view of America has dropped by 20 percentage points over the past two years, from 80 percent in 2012 to 59 percent today.

And despite impressions from around globe that Pakistanis are too tolerant of Islamist extremism, the poll finds that just 8 percent of residents hold a positive view of the Taliban, while only 2 percent approve of al-Qaeda.  Three-fifths of Pakistanis also view the Taliban as a serious threat to the nation.

Still, Pakistanis continue to identify neighboring India as the greatest threat to the country’s security, even though more than 50,000 Pakistanis have been killed in the country’s battle with the Taliban over the past decade.

And the numbers of Pakistanis who feel that way has shot up by about 10 percentage points over the past year, according to Pew.

In a country that has fought three wars against India since 1947, that suggests that old attitudes are hard to erase in Pakistan. That may also be good news for Sharif, who started his first term as prime minister two dozen years ago.