Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pakistan Vote: Against Musharraf Or For Opposition?

Many commentators in Pakistan and the World are in overdrive talking about mandates and profound meanings of the February 18 vote in Pakistan. Some are claiming it is a mandate to restore an independent judiciary, media and democracy while others are talking about it as rejection Musharraf's pro-US policies, "extremism" and "war on terror" etc.
In my humble opinion, there is a far simpler explanation for it: People voted in a predictable way based on the issues that affect them directly on a daily basis. These issues are the basic bread and butter issues such as the availability of cheap atta (wheat flour), more reliable supply of fuel and electricity and improved sense of security. Overall macro-economic improvements, significant growth in GDP, per capita income, explosion in mass media etc over the last 8 years did not count for much as people voted.
The reason I call it "predictable" is because all humans want their basic physiological and safety needs met before they turn their attention to higher level issues of civil society, liberty and realization of full potential. In fact, this is something all managers dealing with people routinely learn as "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" in management training so they can get better at motivating the people they manage.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology that Abraham Maslow proposed in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation", which he subsequently extended to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity. The diagram above shows that most Pakistani voters were operating at the two lower levels of the pyramid in their decision to punish the ruling party. This conclusion is further re-enforced when you look at how the results of the IRI (International Republican Institute) opinion polls changed from September 2006 to January 2008. According to an IRI poll in September 2006, Musharraf had a 63 percent approval rating. But last October 11, IRI released a poll showing him at 21 percent. By late January 2008, Musharraf's approval rating plummeted to 14%. What happened in this intervening period that affected people directly: It was increase in suicide bombings following Lal Masjid, the wheat flour price hike and shortage, serious electricity load-shedding and brown-outs, the firing of the chief justice, his restoration and then re-firing, and Benazir Bhutto's assassination. While each contributed to the drop in Musharraf's approval, the biggest drop came between November 2007 and January 2008 with the food, fuel, electricity crises intensifying and Benazir Bhutto assassination. The final straw came when people directly felt the full impact of the food, the fuel, the power and the security issues. In the end, it was clearly a vote to punish the ruling party of PML-Q and Musharraf rather than to give any mandate to the PPP and and the PML(N).
The fact that MMA, who ruled NWFP and Baluchistan, suffered the same fate further illustrates the fact that the people voted to punish those in charge. It was "Throw The Rascals Out" votes cast in anger and protest all over the country.
The winners will probably get a very short honeymoon period before people start demanding quick resolution to their basic concerns with food and fuel prices and security. Given the worldwide commodity price inflation and the worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan's FATA region, the new government faces very difficult challenges as soon as it takes charge. If the winners choose to focus on settling scores with Musharraf and other political opponents rather than attend to the real bread, butter and security issues, they will quickly lose the support of the people who have elected them.

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