The Imran Khan Phenomenon

Is Pakistan’s cricket star-turned-politician for real?


In 1992, with his cricket career at its twilight, an aging Imran Khan boldly pledged that the Pakistani national team would win the World Cup for the first time. In March of that year, before a packed stadium in Melbourne, Pakistan defeated former colonial master England, taking the cup and shocking the world of cricket. Khan returned home with a trophy in his hands, enshrined forever as a national hero.

These days, Khan leads another group of underdogs: a political party known as the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI). Last September, Khan made a familiarly bold prediction: PTI, which has only won a single National Assembly seat in its 15-year history, will sweep the next general elections. PTI, Khan says without a semblance of doubt, will rid Pakistan of corruption, endemic poverty, and violence — and eventually bring the country to what he sees as its rightful place on the world stage.

Since his retirement from cricket, Khan has been devoted to social work and politics. Inspired by his mother’s death, he founded the world-class Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Center, trusted and respected by Pakistanis of all stripes. Khan’s political career, however, has been another story. PTI, despite the initial hype and fanfare, never really took off. Its founding members left the scene early on, and Khan was regularly outsmarted by wilier politicos.

A solitary Khan would regularly lambast the political class on Pakistan’s many talk shows. Critics dismissed him as the darling of the country’s television anchors and the electorally irrelevant "burger-baby" and "mummy-daddy" types (i.e. coddled, Westernized, rootless, upper-middle class youth). Political satire shows lampooned him as a raving, repetitive political loser.

In 2005, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, then a backer of military ruler Pervez Musharraf, mocked Khan and patronizingly offered to help him win a seat "anywhere he wants." Fast forward six years ahead, and Sheikh Rashid, seated next to Khan on live television, was ingratiatingly referring to the ex-cricketer as a "brother" and meekly asking him for help in winning a few seats in the next elections.

Once an electoral non-entity, Khan’s PTI could potentially win dozens of National Assembly seats in the next polls — hence the Pauline conversion of opportunists like Sheikh Rashid. Already, PTI has upended the détente between the two major political powers — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — and put both on the defensive. PTI might become the country’s third-largest party, giving it the power to determine who heads Pakistan’s next coalition government. Khan, no longer a political joke, is a potential kingmaker positioned to prove the doubters wrong once again.

Pakistan’s political class began to take PTI seriously last fall as the party organized a series of large rallies in Punjab, the country’s largest province and home to its most competitive elections. In late October, PTI beat all expectations and gathered more than 100,000 people in Lahore, the home turf of the PML-N. The jalsa, or gathering, was a smartly choreographed and nationally televised spectacle, featuring religious conservatives, students from the city’s elite schools, and well-to-do housewives. Together, they listened to rousing speeches by politicians and musical performances by the country’s top pop artists, and sang the national anthem. An article in the web edition of Pakistan’s Express Tribune declared, "Imran Khan’s ‘tsunami’ sweeps Lahore." In Lahore, Khan proved he was able to mobilize large numbers of potential voters in a key constituency, signaling to political free agents that his party has a fundraising and logistical network that can get out the vote on Election Day.

Despite his newfound success, the core of Khan’s message has remained the same over the years. He has railed against what he describes as a corrupt, venal political class and an invasive, bullying America. In 1996, he called Asif Ali Zardari, then Pakistan’s first husband, the country’s "biggest disease." He continues to describe Zardari, now the president, as a major impediment to Pakistan’s progress. In 2004, Khan opposed Pakistani military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, warning that once a war with the local tribes begins, "the entire army will be stuck in the tribal areas forever." In 2011, he was instrumental in forging a consensus statement at an all-parties conference that called for talks with the Taliban.

With tensions rising with the United States and a faltering economy, Khan is striking a chord in Pakistan unlike ever before. Pakistanis, ravaged by the scourge of terrorism during the decade after 9/11, saw themselves as casualties of America’s war in Afghanistan. Now, after an ugly downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations in 2011 — including the humiliating Abbottabad raid to capture Osama bin Laden — many believe America’s actual target is Pakistan itself.

Khan’s supporters see him as the most credible advocate for ending Islamabad’s support of America’s wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While other politicians have publicly condemned U.S. action in Pakistan, WikiLeaks cables demonstrate that they tend to speak more approvingly to U.S. officials in private. In contrast, Khan seems to have delivered the same message to the street and the State Department.

At the heart of PTI’s sudden rise is the confluence of an effective narrative, a charismatic and credible evangelist, and fortuitous timing. As Pakistan’s ties with the United States have worsened, so have problems with its economy and government. The consumer price index is close to the teens, putting great strain on the average Pakistani’s finances. The state-owned airlines, railways, and steel mills bleed billions of dollars a year. Prolonged electricity blackouts have continued for their sixth straight year, hammering local industries.

To fix all this, Khan promises to make Pakistan an "Islamic welfare state" where the government promotes justice and equity, is devoid of corruption, and offers social services to the poor. Pakistan, Khan says, should emulate non-Western economic success stories, such as Mahathir Mohammed’s Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

For his supporters, Khan is a symbol of what can go right in a country that has seen so much wrong. And he is seen as a leader who has promised victory when the odds were against him and has regularly come through in the clutch. When Khan announced his plans to build a cancer hospital, it was dismissed as "unworkable idea," according to Pakistani commentator Tariq Bashir. But "like Imran Khan’s cricketing career," Bashir writes, the institution has become a "surprising success stor[y]."

With anti-incumbent sentiment running high as voters blame the country’s two largest parties for the ugly status quo, Khan is the perfect candidate for Pakistanis sick of the usual suspects or skeptical about whether democracy even works for Pakistan. The two major parties are seen by many as having been tried, tested, and failed. The PPP rules at the center, while the PML-N runs Punjab, the largest province. Each has had two previous shots at running the country since 1988.

PTI has shaken up Pakistani politics. Since the Lahore rally, PTI’s rivals have tried to emulate the party’s use of social media, youth outreach, and even the musical interludes during speeches. Some reports even claim that the PTI challenge has forced the country’s two major parties to reposition and mutually obstruct Khan’s advance.

Meanwhile, droves of electable politicians, including three former foreign ministers, have defected from Pakistan’s major political parties to join the PTI. The new entrants include many members of the previous army-backed government under Musharraf, causing the PTI central vice president to resign in protest.

Khan says he can’t find angels to join PTI. He’s right. For years he sought unsuccessfully to build the party from the bottom up. When he founded his party, he pledged to bring in a new class of politician to supplant the "predatory" politicians who have "sieged" Pakistan’s system. 

But Pakistani voters tend to be pragmatic rent-seekers, siding with the candidate they feel will most effectively channel state resources their way. Khan needs politicians with a track record of winning. The party also benefits from the experience brought by an influx of established politicians, who can help add depth to the party’s policy agenda.

And yet, however necessary, PTI’s recruitment of established politicians challenges its claim that it is in pursuit of tabdeeli, or change. It will have to leverage Khan’s leadership and clean image to counterbalance the growing perception that it is old wine in a new bottle. If PTI fails to do so, it will find it difficult to hold on to young and upper-middle class supporters, traditional non-voters who see Khan as their favorite anti-politician politician.

In the coming weeks and months, PTI will develop its election manifesto. This will be an opportunity for Khan and company to explain how they will address Pakistan’s structural weaknesses. PTI will have to articulate its plans to increase government revenue and reduce federal debt, salvage sinking government-owned corporations, lower dependence on natural gas and increase the efficiency of the electricity grid, attract foreign direct investment and boost domestic economic growth, deal with militants who do not lay down their arms and continue their war against the state, and find a place for Pakistan in a rising Asia — beyond making endearing platitudes to China.

None of Pakistan’s problems can be solved overnight. They require not just bold leadership, but quiet skills developed with political experience, such as the ability to assemble coalitions and build consensus. As much as Khan rails against the system, in the event PTI leads the next governing coalition, he will need allies in the bureaucracy, military, and parliament to push his agenda through. Democracy skeptics and politicians who have jumped on the PTI bandwagon could leave as quickly they have joined. And Khan’s political opponents might lack the capability or will to solve Pakistan’s problems, but they are certainly able to prevent him from doing so.

Imran Khan describes his party’s rise as a "tsunami" engulfing the nation’s politics. For the first time, PTI will likely have the numbers to influence government policy after elections are held sometime this year. With political success comes great responsibility. If Khan and PTI fail to rise to the challenge, their tsunami will be nothing but a natural disaster.

Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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