The Pulse

Bursting the Imran Khan Bubble

Although falling short of expectations in Pakistan’s elections, the former cricketer gets a chance to govern.

As the political dust settles in Pakistan, and the country experiences its first civilian transfer of power from one government to another, many of the leading political parties who lost badly in the elections are turning inwards, in an attempt to analyze their faults, weaknesses and shortcomings.

Just a few weeks ago, in the run up to one of the bloodiest elections in the country’s history, elements of local press, the Western media and political punditry were betting on a victory for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Others predicted a hung parliament, saying chief of Pakistan Muslim League N (PMLN) Nawaz Sharif may have to make compromises in forming the government.

All were proved wrong when Sharif won, and prepared to be prime minister of Pakistan for the third time.

Not only did the results burst Imran Khan’s bubble, but his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) could not even beat the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which after five years in power had appeared to be the least popular of the contenders vying for seats in the parliament. Right now, Imran is looking as if he won’t even be the opposition leader in the parliament, with the PPP’s nominated candidate taking that role.

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According to official results (with some constituencies still to report final tallies), Imran Khan’s party won fewer than 30 seats, despite securing more than 7 million votes nationwide. In contrast, Sharif’s party earned about 14 million votes and won more than 120 seats.

These numbers are important, because they reflect the problem with Khan’s voters: they are concentrated in very few areas of Pakistan – mostly urban middle class.

Many of these city-based (especially youth) supporters of Khan had never voted before, seeing politics as a dirty business that served only to preserve the status quo.

Khan deserves credit for motivating this segment of the electorate to go to the polls, but this was not enough to give him victory. Apparently ignoring the fact that two-thirds of Pakistanis don’t live in cities, Khan utterly failed to reach out to rural voters. In rural Pakistan, Imran is not known as a politician but as the celebrity cricketer who won the country the World Cup in 1992. He can give autographs but can’t get votes.

There’s a simple reason for that: rural voters rely on families with local networks who can get things done. Families such as this are politically entrenched in most parts of the country, and are usually affiliated with traditional parties like the PMLN and PPP. In campaigning for “change” Khan made the mistake of choosing for his party neophyte candidates unknown to rural Pakistanis.

Apparently Khan realized the mistake. In a video statement released from the hospital bed after his dramatic fall at an election rally, he implored the Pakistani public to vote for him, rather than for his local candidates.

Still, after winning only a single seat in the 2002 elections under General Musharraf, Khan’s supporters could be justified in seeing 30 seats as a solid result.

Now should we ignore PTI’s win in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where the party will be forming government. Khan will now face the very real challenges of governing.

Situated near the border with Afghanistan, KP is plagued by militancy. The last government was at the mercy of terrorists, losing 700+ workers in attacks orchestrated by the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates.

The Pakistani Taliban, who call democracy un-Islamic and do not believe in the current parliamentary system of governance in Pakistan, need to be eliminated. While Khan’s party has argued that this could be done by pulling out of the War on Terror, during which Pakistan has been an ally of the West, the reality is much more complex.

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What Imran Khan does not see – or rather does not want to talk about – is the fact that the Pakistani Taliban are a product of the Pakistani military’s policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing it with safe havens in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

And with the imminent withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the military and its political proxies like Imran Khan envision Pakistan being able to bring peace in the region by helping install a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul. What they forget is that the Taliban are not so much a group of people as an ideology that has taken firm roots in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, which can be defeated only through a head-on approach of acting against any elements that use terror as a tactic.

For Imran Khan, KP will serve as a test case. If he can deliver there, he may find the next elections give him a better outcome. But with policies that seem to favor befriending the Taliban rather than fighting them – an approach that has proven disastrous in the past – his ability to deliver is very much an open question.

Taha Siddiqui is an investigative journalist working with various local and international media outlets focusing on terrorism, politics and minority issues in the country. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui