x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Imran Khan gears up for Pakistan vote, though his plans remain unclear

Heading toward next year's general election, Imran Khan has emerged as a serious contender who promises comprehensive reform.

Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice), speaks at a rally in Lahore. Getty Images
Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice), speaks at a rally in Lahore. Getty Images

For 25 years, two political dynasties, the Bhutto and Sharif families, have wrestled each other and the military for political control of Pakistan. None has been able to get to grips with the country's myriad problems, which currently include two civil wars, a dire economy that can't feed half the population and a system of governance choked by corruption and ineptitude.

The lack of a credible political alternative, and the absence of any visible national progress, had left many Pakistanis disillusioned and fearful for their future.

A growing number are now looking to Imran Khan as a saviour-in-waiting. He is probably the most recognisable face in Pakistan, adored for leading his country to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, and admired for his ambitious philanthropic ventures, which include the establishment of a specialist cancer hospital and a university.

However, Khan's 16-year political career as the head of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party had, until last year, made no real impact.

His decision to boycott the February 2008 general election - the first after nine years of military rule - was widely dismissed as naive, and most commentators stereotyped him as a noisemaker lacking the political acumen to translate his popularity into votes.

At least, that is, until last October, when Khan relaunched his party with a series of public rallies, memorably one in Lahore that drew several hundred thousand people.

Khan had politically arrived, finally, as a credible alternative to the Bhutto-led ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Sharif-led opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

"He's an achiever", says M Ziauddin, executive editor of The Express Tribune, a leading English-language newspaper.

"He established the cancer hospital against all the odds. Now he's set up a university. He has achieved, and that is his great plus."

Notably, Khan has demonstrated his ability to mobilise the country's youth and the educated middle class, a segment of Pakistani society that has traditionally favoured military rule over populist democracy, and rarely votes.

Commentators say Khan now has the chance to make the mainstream political parties look tired. Indeed, he has positioned his political brand as one that will sweep away an ugly era of corruption.

However, he has offered little of substance about what he might do as prime minister. The reason, critics say, is Khan runs his party as an autocrat. That has led to frequent reshuffles in its structure, preventing its emergence as a proper political machine.

"After 16 or 17 years in politics, Khan is still a novice. He is bereft of any policy. He doesn't have a team, and the team he has ... won't contest anything he says," says Aamir Ghauri, a former director of two Pakistan cable news channels, ARY News and Dunya.

It is only really possible to evaluate Khan's vision from his few public statements and his 2011 book, Pakistan: A Personal History, a best seller in both English and Urdu.

The area he has offered most clarity on is the economy. He has said he plans to declare a "revenue emergency" as soon as he takes office and will get tough on personal taxation and the fiscal deficit. He also intends to divert expenditure towards providing better education, health care and other social services.

All this sounds excellent, but Khan and his party have not come up with any documentation to show how they would go about it.

In Pakistan, he also remarked that it is impossible for the country to ever pay off its foreign debt. But the country's foreign debt, at between 55 to 60 per cent of GDP, is not large, and is certainly lower than that of most western countries.

"Foreign debt is not an enormous burden on the Pakistani economy. The problem is excessive domestic borrowing," says Ziauddin.

Here, Khan loses out to Nawaz Sharif, the former two-time prime minister and leader of the PML-N. An accomplished businessman, Sharif is acknowledged as having a clear economic agenda.

The bedrock of Khan's foreign policy is the withdrawal of Pakistan from the international war on terrorism. He argues, justifiably, that the country has lost far more than it has gained from its post-September 11 alliance with the United States.

He has repeatedly claimed that he can bring an end to the militant insurgency in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, or Fata, along the border with Afghanistan in 90 days. To do so, he would activate a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission.

Experts dismiss his promise as impossible. They point out that Khan is not a Fata resident and wouldn't have spent more than a couple of days there before the violence erupted in 2004 (his book mentions the odd hunting trip to South Waziristan, the ancestral family home of his late mother).

Commentators agree that Khan's rhetoric, while short on substance, represented his evolution from the angry man of Pakistani politics to the leader of a party about to commence electoral battle. That transition marked his firm grasp of some electoral realities.

For the past 25 years, approximately one-third of Pakistanis have voted for the Bhutto dynasty and their left-of-centre PPP party, and two-thirds have voted against it. Khan's political stances are clearly aimed at the right-wing majority, which is split between various factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (by far the largest is headed by Sharif) and a handful of religious parties.

To win, Khan would have to overcome these odds. That is an extraordinarily big challenge.

In Lahore, a PML-N fortress, he would have to overcome winning margins from the 2008 election ranging from 21,000 to 58,000 votes, according to Suhail Warraich, political editor of Geo News, Pakistan's most popular cable channel.

That has forced Khan to make some serious compromises. Since October, his party has been inundated with defectors from the Muslim League factions and religious parties, and the odd disenchanted PPP politician.

Despite consternation among the founding activists of Khan's party, the arrival of professional politicians has significantly boosted his electoral chances.

"Compared to the last election, Khan is now in a much better position. Last time, he didn't have a single electable candidate, save himself. Now he has 50 to 60 new party members who have either won or been runners-up at previous elections. As such, he can now field 30 to 35 winnable candidates," said Warraich, who has written several best-selling political histories.

But if all those potential winners were to win, Khan would still be more than 100 constituencies short of a parliamentary majority.

Tactically, Khan is best positioned in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, the two northern provinces. He is yet to make any inroads in Sindh, the PPP's ancestral home in the south, or in Balochistan, the huge but sparsely populated province in the west that is currently in the grip of a nationalist insurgency (as opposed to the militant insurgency in the Fata).

But Khan could easily find himself outwitted in Punjab, where his candidates could further divide the right-wing vote.

He may stand his best chance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where Sharif is a bit player and voters have become disillusioned with both secular nationalists and fundamentalists.

Khan's rhetoric plays especially well there because voters have suffered terribly in the war on terror, having often found themselves sandwiched between militants, the military and a host of foreign spy agencies.

However, most commentators believe Khan's role, for the time being, would be that of a catalyst, offering a political leadership role to the middle class that it does not have in the established political parties.

Potentially, his party could emerge as a leading second-tier political party and, to some extent, play a pivotal role in the coalition-building process that would invariably follow the election scheduled for early next year.

But Khan has repeatedly said he would not sit in government unless his party wins a majority - which could mean he would revert to type, and sit on the sidelines doing little more than casting aspersions on those participating in governance.

Therein lies the terrible responsibility that Khan has taken upon himself.

"There's a big risk: if Khan proves to be a political failure, he would have disillusioned the youth and middle class - two entire segments of society," said Ghauri, the former TV channel director.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist and broadcaster.