Is Pakistan’s populist leader facing a political dead end?

    Imran Khan promises to be different from his predecessors if chosen to lead, but his ability to govern and his party’s achievements in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region are contested. Yet he’s confident about winning the upcoming national elections.

    Imran Khan is back in drawing-room conversations in Pakistan again. He has started to sound like a broken record, which reminds me of the summer of 2012, when my father and I watched him on TV addressing a massive gathering of his supporters in Lahore.

    I remember my father casting doubt on Khan’s political standing, even though some of the country’s major newspapers and TV channels bought Khan’s portrayal of himself as a leader who wanted to make Pakistan a corruption-free country.  

    A former first-class cricketer, who played for the Pakistani cricket team until 1992, he was the team captain when it won a World Cup victory the same year, 65-year-old Khan has been a national phenomenon for most of his youth. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Oxford graduate was not only a tabloid celebrity but also a symbol of optimism for a country embroiled in several military coups and political assassinations. 

    A decade and a half later, he again presented himself as an indispensable public figure, addressing massive political rallies prior to national elections in 2013.

    I saw my cohorts in their twenties showing fervent support for him. Even my own cousins believed in Khan’s political rhetoric.

    Though Khan didn’t come anywhere close to winning the elections, his party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) received the second-largest share of votes, trailing behind the country’s established Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which become the ruling party.  

    Out of 345 parliamentary seats, Khan won 28, and formed a provincial government in the economically troubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

    Six years later, the country is now preparing for another parliamentary election in July this year. Compared to previous elections, the public’s frustration with long-standing political parties, including the ruling PML-N and the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has reached a tipping point.

    In a recent interview with TRT World’s documentary series Crossing the Line, Khan said a “soft revolution is taking place in Pakistan.”  

    “The two old traditional parties have crashed, crashed in the sense that they have been in power for so long, taking turns and have not delivered,” Khan said. 

    Imran Khan, once a dominant figure in cricket from Karachi to Lord’s, has emerged as a populist leader who aspires to rule the country, promising to eradicate corruption in public institutions. (AP)

    Chance to strike hard 

    For the first time, Khan is in a position to strike a decisive blow against the ruling elite. But there is also a possibility of him falling behind in the electoral race. His party’s performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thought to be a testing ground for Khan’s governing abilities, is disputed by PTI’s rivals and supporters. He has also been criticised for advocating dialogue with the Taliban, a stance that earned him the nickname of “Taliban Khan.” 

    “So-called ‘liberals’ treat the Taliban as if there were only one way to deal with them – through the military,” he told the media in 2013. 

    Two months ago, in November 2017, TRT World  conducted some interviews in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Akhora Khattak town with the help of a local activist. The activist spoke to Muhammad Zubair,  who managed a potato chips kiosk in the town.  

    For Zubair, the PTI administration hasn’t done much to develop the region’s infrastructure. “None of the political parties or leaders provided us with basic needs, and that includes Imran Khan’s PTI,” he said. 

    Though PTI came into power in the region promising jobs, to improve the economy and clean corruption up, Imran Khan has been fielding criticism over corruption allegations among the PTI members in the local assembly.

    Although there have been visible reforms in education and healthcare, the PTI government’s policies still fall short of its electoral promises.

    “Taliban has destroyed nearly 500 schools in the KP province, did Imran Khan even build half of them?” said Dr Jafar Ahmed, a professor of politics at the University of Karachi.

    Ahmed struggled to understand whether Khan had a plan to develop the region. “For a leader in opposition standing and competing for Prime Ministry, what are his agrarian, economic and educational reformation policies? Will he deal with the issue of unemployment and education?” said Ahmed.

    Ahmed argued that Khan’s populist brand of politics, which aimed to defeat corruption and crony capitalism was likely to face a dead end in the near future. “There is a failure to establish a proper democratic process, since the historical weaknesses – political parties embracing electable candidates – have been manifested in Pakistani political culture.”

    The candidates most likely to be elected are driven by the politics of patronage, and use money, muscle and tribal affiliations to win the elections. Most of them are facing allegations of corruption, mismanagement of public funds and nepotism themselves. 

    Besides the civilian government’s failings, the country’s army has had a strong role in stunting the growth of both public and political institutions.

    Military takeovers 

    Pakistan has had 19 prime ministers since its founding 70 years ago and none of them has served full terms. The country has had military rule lasting 33 years in total. Likewise, many of its democratically elected leaders have either been assassinated, hanged, or exiled. In 2016, at least 60 million Pakistanis were recorded as living below the poverty line.

    The rise of Khan to national prominence is a byproduct of years of political destabilisation. Pakistan’s youth, who have grown up witnessing public money wasted on ill-crafted policies, comprise two-thirds of the 207 million population. After the advent of social media, Khan and his party tapped into the mobile-savvy youth, using Twitter and Facebook, promising them that he could be different from his predecessors. 

    “The big difference now in Pakistan is that the entire population wants a change,” Khan told TRT World. “Why do they want a change? It is because of this awareness, this great advantage of social media, the speed at which information travels, it’s unprecedented in human history, everyone knows what’s going on, so the corruption of the two main parties has never been exposed as it is now.” 

    Pakistan has experienced five coups , at least three failed coup attempts, and 33 years of direct military rule since declaring independence in 1947. (AP)

    In Pakistan, however, it is not just corruption but deadly militant attacks on public institutions, including schools, that Khan will have to address if he is chosen to lead the country. 

    According to Human Rights Watch, 25 million children are out of school. The Taliban and other militants have repeatedly committed horrific attacks on educational institutions, depriving students of education.

    “The situation here breaks my heart – there should be someone here to support us,” said Humayun, a 13-year-old student at The Citizens Foundation School in Akhora Khattak.

    Humayun said most of the children in his town had no access to education even though they wanted to go to school. “Once I asked a random kid, do you have any wish in your heart. He told me that he wants to study, but we are really poor to help ourselves,” he said.

    A soldier stands guard at the entrance of a university dormitory where a militant attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Charsadda district in January 20, 2016. (AP)

    The intra-party rift

    In a country where one’s family connections often helps them gain political power, Imran Khan’s party at the start snubbed the old political dynasties. 

    But as PTI was on the backburner for more than a decade and struggled to change its image as a party of political neophytes, Khan began to forge alliances with other candidates who were more electable. He also courted criticism for being dictatorial with his rank and file. 

    “He seems to be lacking democratic credentials and there is no opposition against him in the party,” said Ahmed, the professor of politics.

    “His past disputes with retired Justice Wajihuddin Ahmad, suspending his membership in 2015, and also with former PTI member Javed Hashmi shows that Imran Khan doesn’t stand people who oppose him.” 

    But although Khan has been fighting against corruption his own party members have been accused of the same crime. 

    Forecast for upcoming poll   

    In the summer of 2017, Pakistan’s supreme court removed the prime minister Nawaz Sharif from office forbeing involved in shady business deals exposed in the Panama Papers.

    This turn of events may change Imran Khan’s political fortunes. Campaign promises for a corruption-free Pakistan have become louder, increasing his chances of being elected as prime minister in the upcoming elections.

    Doubts still linger, however. Political experts argue that Khan’s party is less likely to win a majority of seats since it lacks support in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. 

    They also suggest that PTI may lose its majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the conservative Muttahida Majlis i Amal (MMA) party threatens to divide the vote. 

    “We will have a situation to religious party alliance in 2002, which was set against president Pervez Musharraf,” says Ahmed. “We probably have high chances of having a coalition government.”

    It’s hard to predict the rise of a populist, anti-corruption leader fixing the country’s institutional weakness anytime soon. The country is far from establishing a robust democratic structure with a strong economy, that is free from army influence. If the next government begins to work toward this, people like Zubair and Humayun could have a better life. 

    “My work doesn’t bring me enough, and sometimes I end up paying fines worth 10,000 to 20,000 Rupees ($100 or $200),” says Zubair.

    His hope for good governance hasn’t waned despite living in difficult circumstances. 

    NOTE: The previous version of the story stated the reporter had travelled to Khyber Paktunkhwa, but that was inaccurate. The reporter remotely interviewed Zubair and Humayun with the help of a local activist named Shahab Rehman who shared the footage with TRT World. We regret the error.

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