In Pakistani politics, when one is widely compared to the country’s most famous (infamous?) political grandmaster, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (president from 1971 to 1973 and prime minister from 1973 to 1977), it is time to pay attention. This is the notoriety now being accorded Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricketing hero-turned philanthropist and then politician. The comparisons are remarkable given that a week ago Khan was considered to be a political nobody.
The event that has launched Khan to the forefront of the chattering classes’ political conversation was a rally held by his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Pakistan Justice Movement party on October 30 in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. The rally attracted as many as 100,000 supporters and may have been the largest single political gathering in the country in decades. The number of attendees floored political analysts and rivals alike and convinced many that Khan had finally arrived on the “mainstream political scene.”
The unexpectedly high turnout has rattled the cages of several political entities in Pakistan, but none more so than that of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the high-profile party of former two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in whose backyard the rally took place and whose core constituency the PTI suddenly appears to be competing for.
The Politics of Opposition
During his speech in Lahore on Sunday, Khan lambasted both the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the PML-N as being “creatures of the status quo,” blaming them for many of the country’s ills and tapping into a groundswell of public resentment against Pakistan’s unpopular government and general downward trajectory. Khan stumped further on his anti-corruption platform and called on Nawaz Sharif and President Asif Zardari, the PML-N and PPP leaders respectively, to declare their real assets. He threatened to start a massive civil disobedience movement and to form a special cell to investigate and declare their assets if they failed to do so.
Khan’s politics have always been the politics of opposition. The hero of Pakistan’s 1992 cricket world cup victory, when he first entered into politics in 1996 he made considerably less than a splash. The PTI was resoundingly defeated in the 1997 general elections and won just one seat out of 272 in 2002. The party currently has no seats in parliament owing to Khan’s boycott of the 2008 general election. He has himself in the past acknowledged that his party is “never going to win the traditional way.”
Khan has, instead, taken the route of populist politics. He has large support bases among the youth, particularly those in urbanized parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and central Punjab, who are disillusioned with the corrupt seesawing of status quo parties. Khan’s actual politics would be characterized as right-leaning and his party is often considered to be a cuddlier version of Pakistan’s Islamist political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
One of the pillars of his growing support is his opposition to unpopular U.S. foreign policy in the region and to Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terror. Khan is flatly opposed to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and seeks to end Pakistani participation in the war on terror, which he characterizes as having been undertaken purely for financial gain. He favors talks with Islamist militants and seeks a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Speaking on Sunday, Khan said “My message to America is that we will have friendship with you, but we will not accept any slavery….We will help you in a respectable withdrawal of your troops from Afghanistan, but we will not launch a military operation in Pakistan for you.”
Khan seeks to remedy Pakistan’s perceived slavishness to foreign powers by ending its dependency on foreign aid. He calls for reform of the taxation system and a crackdown on tax corruption, saying the Rs 3 trillion ($34.83 billion) lost to such sleaze could easily make up for foreign aid refused from other nations. That said, beyond his generic declarations against tax corruption and his desire to widen the tax base to include agriculture, the largest and thus far completely untaxed section of the Pakistani economy, Khan’s platform is decidedly vague. There is similarly little contour in his pronounced intentions to declare an “education emergency” or to aim for the establishment of an “Islamic welfare state.”
Splitting the vote
The October 30 rally made a big impression on Pakistan’s politics gurus; it threatened to seriously upend the conventional understanding of Pakistan’s political fabric. On no one did this have a bigger impression than the PML-N. Khan’s rally took place in Lahore, the PML-N’s stomping ground. The rally and its outcome was a shot across the PML-N’s bow and signaled that the PML-N’s traditional vote bank could no longer be taken for granted.
Central and northern Punjab comprise some of the most densely-populated areas in the country and hold a large number of seats in the country’s lower house, the National Assembly. This region has traditionally voted most strongly for the PML-N. The PTI has, however, started to erode the PML-N’s hold over the region. Khan, as part of his grassroots campaign, has been holding frequent rallies in Lahore, and stumping his way through population centers such as Faisalabad and Gujranwala, often managing to turn veteran politicians into advocates for his cause. The PTI’s rhetoric against U.S. policy in the region may have helped capture a section of the PML-N’s more right-wing voters, especially given that the PML-N has refrained from publicly participating in increasingly popular America-bashing (probably in the belief that it would need U.S. support if it was to gain and hold power come the next election). Furthermore, demographic changes in the Punjab including increased urbanization and a growing rural middle-class have both led to a re-evaluation of traditional party loyalties.
A big rally does not an election victory make, however. Although the PTI has been cutting a swathe through the Punjab, it has mostly been picking up support in traditionally PML-N constituencies. It has not yet proven itself in parts of the Punjab that have tended to vote for the left-leaning PPP. Furthermore, the PTI has been able to gather strong support in more urbanized areas, but urban voters in Pakistan are historically less likely to vote than their rural counterparts.
Ironically, what this may translate into is that the anti-status quo PTI, rather than pipping the PML-N at the first-past-the-post ballot box, may end up splitting the vote in the Punjab and, as a result, strengthening the electoral prospects of the highly unpopular incumbent PPP government. This potential outcome has strengthened the voices of those among the PTI’s critics who claim the PTI is being backed by the Pakistan Army in order to prevent a PML-N election victory, an outcome the army would like to avoid given the bad blood between the army and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N has called for increased scrutiny of the military and its annual expenditures, cutting the military budget, and for closer ties to India, all causes that run counter to military interests.
In the end there is much left to play for and many questions remain unanswered. Barring some political crisis, elections are not set to be held until 2013. While Khan has managed to tap into a strong undercurrent of resentment against status quo politics and anti-American sentiment, whether he will be able to continue to harness and exploit that sentiment until Election Day remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether he will be able to expand his support beyond urban centers and into parts of rural Punjab traditionally held by the PML-N and PPP. While the PTI has made large gains in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province, it is still a political minnow in Balochistan and Sindh.
While Khan has used anti-government and anti-American rhetoric to gain large amounts of support, he has yet to demonstrate an ability to break away from the holier-than-thou politics of opposition and demonstrate an aptitude for practical politics. “Not those guys” may be a rousing refrain at a rally, but it is not a party manifesto or a policy document.
That said, the PTI has made remarkable gains in a short time span. It has swelled its party lists through a comprehensive grassroots campaign involving volunteers and social outreach, it has captured the imagination of large sections of the urban youth, and its leader currently polls as the most popular political figure in the nation. While it may be too soon to make any bold predictions about Khan and the direction his PTI is heading in, he now seems able to attract rally audiences the PML-N and PPP could only dream of addressing. The story is unfinished, but a previously overlooked character has recently given himself a serious reintroduction. The PTI’s ability to seriously disrupt the political calculus in Pakistan, and the fact that much of its popularity stems from publicly stoking anti-American sentiment, means its political development is worth keeping a close eye on. Continue to watch this space.