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As historic elections dawn, public mood in Pakistan is dismal

Washington – As Pakistan heads to the polls, two new surveys about Pakistani attitudes and fears are worth noting. When you put the findings together, the emergent picture is of a country at war within and without, and a nation confused about its core that seeks answers in more Sharia not more democracy.

The fact of a civilian government completing its term for the first time in Pakistan’s history has little celebratory verve left in the face of an open declaration of war by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP against the three secular parties. More than 70 people and candidates already have died in targeted attacks by terrorists whose agenda is clear -- if it wasn’t already – cast the country in an Islamic straightjacket from which it can’t free itself.

The controlled experiment of feeding Islam as a steady diet to the people -- a joint venture between the military and the clerics – is bearing fruit.

A new Pew Research Center survey released May 7 highlights the people’s mood as “exceedingly grim” with 91% saying Pakistan is headed in the wrong direction. While a significant 49% consider the TTP a “very serious threat” to Pakistan, they don’t want help from the United States, which has been fighting the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. Most Pakistanis see America only as the enemy, not as the source of $25 billion in aid.

A policeman and a private guard stand near the portrait of Nawaz Sharif, leader of political party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), during an election campaign rally in Peshawar May 7, Reuters

A policeman and a private guard stand near the portrait of Nawaz Sharif, leader of political party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), during an election campaign rally in Peshawar May 7, Reuters

An interesting finding concerns the people’s attitude towards terrorist and extremist groups. While 46% had an unfavourable view of al-Qaeda, and 13% had a positive view, a large number – 41% -- checked the box of “don’t know.” It may be hard to believe since the sample was largely urban and interviews were conducted in various local languages.

Pakistanis similarly showed a lack of awareness of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group whose recruitment network is widespread and woven deep into the fabric of society. According to a recent study done by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the LeT roams freely and enlists tens of thousands from the same provinces (mainly Punjab) as the Pakistan military. The group enjoys a high degree of “open support,” according to Christine Fair, one of the authors of the report.

So when 41% of Pakistanis in the Pew Survey profess ignorance of the LeT, are they in denial or merely playing safe? It is like saying they don’t know about the existence of the Pakistani military. Incidentally 24% had a positive view of LeT while 36% felt negatively about the group.

As for India, there is some progress, if one can call it that. The number of Pakistanis who consider India a threat has fallen from 57% in 2012 to 52% this year. The fear of the Taliban and India is at about the same level today.

Juxtapose this with another survey released last month, which shows that more young Pakistanis want their country run on Sharia law or by the army than a democratic government. It must surely boost the extremists who are wantonly killing secular party candidates to know that Pakistan’s young won’t be too disturbed.

The poll of 5,271 people between the ages of 18 to 29 conducted by the British Council, was filled with grim trends. It showed that 32% of the young support military rule, while 38% prefer Islamic law. Only 29% believe that democracy is the way to go. You could say it is a confused split.

But then the distance from democracy pops up in 77% approval of the army and 71% disapproval of the civilian government. If this weren’t enough, a good 74% looked favourably on religious organizations.

Gen. Kayani must feel satisfied with the games he and his predecessors have played to create political space for religious groups and their dubious leaders. Together they shepherded the post-Zia-ul-Haq generation that can move seamlessly between the internet and religion. The grand project of Islamisation is almost complete – the young deride political parties and look to the mosque for inspiration.

The youth bulge of Pakistan was supposed to be a hopeful sign but instead it is a sober reminder of the future ahead – one where religion would be more dominant, not less. And that only means more trouble for the whole neighborhood.