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The hazards of early predictions

The hazards of early predictions

THE elections will come in due time but the poll fever gripping commentators is already taking root. In some cases, the witnesses to the event, the celebrated observers as they are reverently addressed as, are much ahead of the actual parties in their preparations for an election. This is the norm even if some of those who have seen a few grand general elections in their life are a little puzzled by this crazy race to predict at the possible cost of revealing one’s naivety and the proven ability to get it all wrong.

There are a few elections vivid in my memory. Unfortunately, the mother of them all, the 1970 election is not amongst them, purely because it took me longer than some others to be truly aware of what was happening around me. All I have by way of recollection of this momentous occurrence in our history is a few bits and pieces that signified the tensions between the old and the young in the family. Add to that the declaration by my respected elders who pronounce that vote as the most positive moment in our history and you pretty much have my version of the ’70 polls before you.

The heady days that the veterans talk about are a little blurred in the mind, the compensation being that the same inability to recall the period makes it a little easier for my generation to withstand the pain of losing half of Pakistan. What stands out more starkly, sadly, is the part where it went wrong. I wouldn’t say that it was the beginning of the rot since we all know that there must have been certain factors behind it.

Strictly in the context of this write-up, however, the 1977 polls are marked in memory as a dull affair, much before it became controversial. This is probably because this observer happened to be in Islamabad during the run-up to and the holding of that election. A reference to the time throws up images of violent protest as the focus shifts to Lahore; also quite fresh are all those forecasts that had Zulfikar Ali Bhutto winning hands down. Useless, ineffective predictions about popularity that couldn’t apparently convince the man whose personal charisma they were based on.

For a dictator’s period, quite a few votes were held between 1979 and 1988, including a referendum and a couple of local government polls. These were all fun times for many, for these supposed contests of democracy were lacking in the tension that the presence of political parties inevitably causes. It was more an exercise in selecting Gen Ziaul Haq’s associates at various levels beginning with a councillor. Or this is how he saw it until he ran into the bold ‘insider’ democrats of the times in Muhammad Khan Junejo, Fakhr Imam and a few others. One thing the ‘non-party’ polls of 1985 did was to encourage reliance and overreliance on the biradari factor; the formula continues to be hazardously applied to all exercises in forecasting vote counts.

The parties returned to the ring in post-Zia Pakistan in 1988 and everybody predicted a PPP victory under Benazir Bhutto. But the predictors had only guessed the winner right, there being so many flaws in the numbers and the other details they came up with. BB won fewer seats than expected and she lost Punjab — forever it can be argued. There was no visible allowance made for the establishment’s role in that election, and the topic remains half addressed to this day. Yet none of the ‘setbacks’ and denials the analysts suffered in those return-to-democracy polls could curb the gambler’s instinct in journalists to call a poll.

Things must have improved since and the temptation is much greater in the media-dominated proceedings now. Today’s analyst may be better equipped than yesterday’s observer to gauge the mood of the people at a particular point in time. But certain realities remain unchanged. In the golden tradition of manners, that are deemed necessary to win you respect in the world, the predictors are best advised to stay silent until it is absolutely essential for them to speak up — when there is no escape for them without revealing the identity of the favourite horse for the race.

We can take any general election between 1988 and 2013 and look for all those predictions that did not come true. There were, on the other hand, so many who did live up to their pre-contest billing. Invariably, and you don’t have to be a genius to know this, the closer the predictions were made to the election, the more likely they were to be proven right. The long shots were time and again off target. The safest were the fortune-tellers who had been careful enough to have punctuated their forecasts with lots and lots of ifs and buts.

There were a few winners amongst the predictors along the way but the general trend discouraged voluntary practitioners of the difficult art of foretelling. There is a great risk of the adventurous individual getting exposed for sharing his projections about an election until the moment when it is considered absolutely necessary to divulge this information to the people in the name of the democratic process.

Getting it wrong is only one aspect. There is always this danger of the analyst being accused of trying to influence a vote, even if his projections are vindicated at the completion of an election. This is the serious risk all these surveys and predictions, that are gushing out suddenly over the last few weeks, run. Additionally, their timing contributes to the feeling that it is not easy to predict when exactly to expect a general election. These surveys lend a certain urgency to the situation, aiding the feeling that a general election may be closer than the date the punters and development planners in PML-N were betting on until recently.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2017

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