The Daily Star's annual opinion poll provides an encouraging start to the new year for the ruling Awami League. This time last year, the AL was looking at the grim numbers of three years of steadily diminishing popularity. The big news of the 2012 poll is how the government's popularity is edging back up again, even after a difficult year.
46% now believe the government is heading in the right direction, up from 41% a year ago, with 42% voting the other way, down from 45%, a total swing of 8 points from negative 4 to plus 4.
Similarly, last year 38% were satisfied with the government and 39% dissatisfied. This year the number is 47% to 36%, a 12-point swing for the government. Those very much satisfied rose from 5% to 11%, while those very much dissatisfied dropped from 5% to 4%.
The trend is unmistakable. Today, 34% view the economy positively, up from 31% a year ago, while those with a negative opinion have dropped from 39% to 33%, a 9-point swing.
The public gives the government good marks for law and order: 50% to 35%, up from 41% to 33% last year. The opinion of the judiciary has also improved, with 35% giving it good marks, up from 32% a year ago. Negative view of the judiciary, at 43% is still higher than the positive, but is markedly down from the 2011 figure of 53%, a 13-point swing.
Most heartening for the Prime Minister, her own popularity is once again shooting up, her positives to negatives clocking in at 48% to 37%, a 13-point upsurge from last year's 40% to 42%. Those very satisfied with her performance were up 5 points from 6% to 11%, while those very much dissatisfied were down to 7% from 13%.
Overall, the party's performance rating went up sharply, with 44% registering approval compared to only 28% a year ago, with 48% thinking it had done poorly, compared to 53% a year ago, a massive improvement of 21 points.
Of course, the obvious point to be made here is that even as the AL has shown impressive gains almost across the board and arrested the decline in perception, its overall numbers are still decidedly low, for the most part, still lower than they were two years ago or at any time previously this term.
The further good news for the BNP is that Khaleda Zia's popularity has gone up to 39% from 30% last year. Her negatives remained the same at 31%.
As for the BNP as a whole, the party's approval rating was 43%, down slightly from last year's 44%, while its negatives were at 40% up from 28%. But while this is a 13-point drop, it will note that it is still in better shape than the AL when it comes to overall satisfaction.
The poll's most interesting finding is that one year before elections are due to be held, the parties are still neck and neck. Asked who they would vote for if elections were held tomorrow, 42% plumped for the AL compared to 39% for the BNP. Last year it was 40% to 37%.
On the issue of the caretaker government, 67% still want one for the next elections, with 26% opposed. However, it is noteworthy that these numbers were 74% to 20% last year. An interesting counter-point is that the 32% think that the Election Commission is capable of holding the next elections, with 16% saying "mostly capable" and 29% saying "not capable."
In the end, the numbers can provide comfort for both sides. The AL can take comfort from the arrest of its decline in public opinion, but it is still far from popular, and the BNP is breathing down its neck. In other words, it's all to play for in 2013.
The crucial figures to look at going forward are the last ones, with respect to the Election Commission and the caretaker government, because it is public opinion on those issues that will settle who wins that battle, which in turn will in large part decide whether we even have elections at all.
The good news is that with the parties both reasonably popular, both will have an incentive to come to an agreement to go to the polls. The bad news is that for the first time since democracy was restored in 1991, the election might be too close to call.