By Richard Wike, Associate Director, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project
Special to CNN
Last Saturday, three people were killed and more than 30 injured when two bombs exploded near the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement, or MQM, a leading political party in Karachi, Pakistan. It was yet another tragic incident in a campaign season plagued by violence that has seen dozens killed. As the country prepares for this weekend’s elections, the Taliban has significantly stepped up its attacks. And no matter which party emerges victorious from the May 11 poll, it will have to answer to a public that is increasingly worried about the threat extremism poses to the Pakistani state.
Pakistani fears about extremism had actually been on the wane over the last few years. The high mark of concern was 2009, when the Taliban gained control of the Swat Valley and neighboring areas within 100 miles of the nation’s capital Islamabad. In a spring 2009 Pew Research Center poll, 57 percent of Pakistanis described the Taliban as a very serious threat to the country. But after the Pakistani military forced a Taliban retreat, fears declined, and by 2012 a little more than a third of Pakistanis held this view.
Today, however, the upsurge in violence is leading to an increase in fear. In a new Pew Research poll conducted this March, almost half say the Taliban is a very serious threat. And perhaps most tellingly, for the first time, worries about the Taliban are essentially as high as worries about India, long considered by Pakistanis to be the country’s biggest threat.
Nearly all of those surveyed – 98 percent – call terrorism a big problem, while 93 percent say it is a very big problem. More than six-in-ten, meanwhile, are concerned that extremists could take over the country – the highest level registered since 2009.
Of course, extremism is hardly Pakistan’s only problem as people go to the polls. The economy is widely seen as struggling, and complaints about political corruption are pervasive. Overall, 91 percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, while about eight-in-ten Pakistanis view President Asif Ali Zardari unfavorably; his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is expected to lose power in the election.
Many observers believe the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will win the most seats in this weekend’s election, although Tehreek-e-Insaf, the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, is also expected to do well. Certainly, the current Pew Research poll finds both performing well, with two-thirds saying they have a favorable view of Sharif, and 60 percent saying they have a positive view of Khan. Still, it’s unclear whether this popularity will translate into votes in Pakistan’s multi-party parliamentary elections remains to be seen.
Regardless of the outcome, the winner will face a public that is both increasingly concerned about extremism and divided over what to do about it. The reality is that there is no consensus over how to use the nation’s military in the fight against extremists. While 35 percent support using the Pakistani army to battle extremist organizations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, regions where such groups are particularly active, more than half either oppose this idea, or else are uncertain.
Meanwhile, there is limited enthusiasm for working with the United States in this fight. More than half would like to see the U.S. supply financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups are active, although only one in five support the idea of the U.S. conducting drone strikes in conjunction with the Pakistani government.
More broadly, though, America’s image in Pakistan is overwhelmingly negative: Just 11 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. positively. Such anti-Americanism in Pakistan is nothing new, but high-profile events in recent years, such as the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor killed two Pakistani men in Lahore, have only served to deepen these sentiments.
In Pakistan, there is a general distrust of American power and widespread opposition to U.S. foreign policies, including the war in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistanis may be worried about extremism, but this does not mean that they want to U.S. to continue its fight against extremists in Afghanistan.
The winner of Saturday’s election will face a formidable set of challenges, including a poor economy, a political system riddled with corruption, and a strained relationship with the world’s most powerful nation. And if the violence of recent weeks continues, the extremist threat could very well rise to the top of the new government’s agenda.