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Pakistan: Will he stay or will he go?

When I started on this trip, I planned to post 1-2 videos a week. For the first month, that's not been possible, because Islamabad has pretty much outlawed videotaping anywhere in the city. I've been stopped and ID'ed and questioned several times while trying to snap still images, and even inside buildings, officials are unwilling to go on camera. Since Tuesday, however, I've been in Karachi, where the rules are a little more lenient. Hopefully more visual aids will follow.

I did manage to get one video interview while in the capital, however, which I'll be excerpting in two parts today and tomorrow. This section deals with the current political climate, the weakness of the Zardari administration and the bubbling talk of the government falling from power. If that talk is right, it's a major issue for international policymakers who have just signed on to an AfPak strategy that will rely on an alliance with Islamabad until 2013, and thus demands a certain consistency in Pakistani policy. On the other hand, if that talk is wrong, international governments are stuck dealing with a Pakistani President who has no domestic credibility--how effective can he be at implementing international obligations?

From my perspective, there are three notable takeaways from Gilani's data:

1. In a parliamentary system where voters don't choose particular national candidates, just party slates, political partisanship and specific policy positions don't go hand in hand. Such systems also make it easy for political partisanship to become a matter of habit rather than true allegiance (people vote the way their parents voted, for example, or the way their neighbors vote), so that the parties become entrenched fiefdoms of their leaders. As I wrote in my Tuesday piece on the role of Pakistan's middle class, this can be dangerous.

2. Poll data can be extremely deceptive. A plummeting approval rating for the President and newsreels that proclaim "if the general election were held today, the People's Party would lose by 20 percentage points" makes it sound as though the party's approval has fallen and the President's with it. In reality, it's a coalescence of forces outside the party that drives those results. Lesson: watch out for fuzzy math.

3. This shift is long-term good for Pakistan. When the PML was fractured into two by Musharraf, each rump party had to forge coalitions with smaller fringe groups. The PML-Q that Musharraf created naturally allied itself with the military, expanding the army's reach into political life, as well as with some regional radicals. The PML-N meanwhile, or what was left of it, tilted towards the religious right. If the "Q" voters and "N" voters reunite, those fringe groups are marginalized, and hopefully brought closer to the moderate mainstream in their quest to stay relevant.