Seventeen years into his political career, Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), galvanized the nation’s dispassionate youth on a platform of fighting corruption. In this country of 180 million, it is a cause stamped with his image. Prior to the elections in the spring of this year, which marked the first ever democratic transfer of power for Pakistan, Khan’s message of “Inqilaab” (Revolution) achieved common currency, as he held rallies that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Karachi, Peshawar and Lahore. Khan’s image functions as a Rorschach test: each person sees the same image, but interprets it differently. Some see his actions as signaling the second coming of Zia-ul-Haq, the Islamist military dictator who once offered Khan a cabinet post in his regime, while others project onto him the image of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the populist and deeply charismatic statesman whose words still strongly resonate today. Khan’s appeal to the Pakistani psyche is linked to an unusual ability to court both sides of the divide, without still appearing to speak plainly.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf rode into the national election last spring on a sweeping wave, or tsunami, as Khan liked to call it, of popular sentiment. Part of this approval had to do with Khan’s status as a national hero for captaining the national cricket team that won the World Cup in 1992, defeating Pakistan’s former colonial master – England – in the process. Khan’s philanthropic fight against cancer waged through a franchise of hospitals he built across Pakistan to provide free treatment to the poor only endeared him all the more to the masses. But if these two elements formed his executive experience, then the pillar of his message was constructed in his opposition to the war against extremism the West was waging inside Pakistan. With overwhelming disillusionment with the United States – three in four Pakistanis see the United States as an “enemy,” according to a Pew Research Center poll – this was a message that resonated.
Despite being the most popular politician in the country, Khan was only able to secure a third place finish in this year’s general election, with his PTI winning 34 out of 342 seats in the National Assembly. The PTI formed a provincial coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), the northwestern area of Pakistan plagued with insurgent violence. Khan’s platform of rooting out corruption in 90 days, able economic management, and a promise to usher in an era of peace revived hope across the nation, but was especially potent in KPK, where the former Awami National Party (ANP) was voted out in favor of PTI. Now that PTI has crossed its half-year mark as leading administrators in the province, it is worth asking whether Khan’s promises have led to any sort of real change.
The recent sacking of three key ministers from the coalition Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) over poor performance and alleged corruption suggest that there are fissures developing within the “tsunami” that Khan’s party rode into office. A leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party that works closely with the PTI revealed to the Express Tribune that the decision to end the alliance with QWP was taken unilaterally by Khan, without proper consultation with the other party leaders that form the coalition. That these acronyms are failing to talk to one another, especially on matters of governance, reflects a broader failure in management in an area of Pakistan that is crucial to the broader security of the country.
In matters of security, PTI – and by and large the central government – has failed to express an anchoring vision for stemming the growing tide of violence. Despite intelligence on an impending jail break, authorities in August were caught off guard in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, where Taliban-affiliated militants helped free close to 250 prisoners. In a three-hour gun battle, local police authorities were unable to subvert an armed assault, revealing to the world the embarrassing state of security in KPK. During the Eid al-Adha holidays recently, members of the Taliban assassinated Israr Gandapur, the minister of Law and a member of Imran Khan’s party, in the most high-profile assassination since the election. While a targeted operation has been launched in Peshawar, resulting in weekly arrests of dozens of suspects, the situation of KPK remains as unstable as it was during the last administration. Without proper structural changes on policies to combat and prosecute terrorists, security concerns will continue to metastasize.