x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Imran Khan misses, despite early promise

Former cricketer seemed to be riding a wave of pent-up frustration among the middle-class youth of Pakistan's rapidly growing cities – but it was a mistake to think of young Pakistanis as a unified bloc, academic says. Taimur Khan reports

Imran Khan speaks from the hospital bed where he is recovering from a fractured spine.
Imran Khan speaks from the hospital bed where he is recovering from a fractured spine.

KARACHI // In the weeks leading up to Saturday's historic national elections in Pakistan, the former cricket superstar Imran Khan's Movement for Justice party appeared to be on the verge of an upset.

His campaign gained momentum as he barnstormed the country, drawing massive crowds of young supporters at rallies and igniting social media and television news channels alike. He seemed to be riding a wave of pent-up frustration among the middle-class youth of Pakistan's rapidly growing cities.

But as the results began to flood in just hours after polls closed, projections already had the party of two-time premier Nawaz Sharif comfortably in the lead. Yesterday, the scale of Mr Sharif's victory became even clearer, with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) likely able to comfortably form a government without having to bring Mr Khan's party or the outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party into a coalition.

Mr Sharif's rout of Mr Khan's party upended many of the assumptions about how the election would be won and how deep support for Mr Khan actually ran in the crucial Punjab province beyond the small urban elite.

It was widely thought that a high turnout among the youth would benefit Mr Khan. Young people flocked to his rallies in Lahore and Karachi, and supporters became known for their passionate support on social media.

But it was a mistake to think of young Pakistanis - those under 35 made up nearly half of eligible voters - as a unified bloc, said Mohammed Waseem, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"The youth is not a minority group, they belong to all the classes, rural and urban, the two genders" and so have very different political interests, Mr Waseem said.

"The most sophisticated class of youth in the cosmopolitan centres is for Imran [Khan], but that does not mean that Pakistani youth are for the party."

While Mr Khan's enraptured supporters enjoyed high visibility in TV coverage and Twitter interactions with journalist and celebrities, Mr Sharif's party more quietly reached out to young people in the same way that it has to Punjabis of all ages during the past five years of its provincial government: by emphasising its development credentials and tangible economic promises of jobs, loans and greater opportunity.

Mr Khan focused his campaign message on an end to what he called the corruption of the political class and the systems of patronage that underlay their power, which he promised to replace with meritocracy and the good governance of well-educated technocrats.

The problem with this message, however, was that for those outside the elite and upper middle classes, the bonds of extended family networks and patronage systems are still necessary.

"For urban middle classes, their issue is service delivery and not necessarily the issue of political rights," said Asad Sayeed, an expert on Pakistani politics and society at the Collective for Social Science Research, a Karachi-based think tank.

"His platform was an elitist anti-politics and he was caught out on that," Mr Sayeed said. "The results tell us that voters are projecting what they desire and through whom they think is best able to deliver it."

It was also clear that Mr Khan's inexperienced ground campaigners could not match the well-oiled political machine that the PML-N has cultivated throughout Punjab, even in areas outside of their natural constituencies among middle- and lower-middle class urbanites.

"We protected our base," an aide to Mr Sharif told Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. "The club-going, mummy-daddy crowd, the upper class, was never with us to begin with. But we won a vote this time that we haven't really before: poorer people."

While Mr Khan will lead the opposition in the national assembly, the Movement for Justice did sweep provincial elections in north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, giving the party its first opportunity for actual hands-on governance.

Voters in the north-west, which has borne the brunt of the Pakistani Taliban's terrorist war on the state, have a history of dispatching their provincial leaders en masse during each election. In 2002 voters elected an alliance of right-wing religious parties and then in 2008 replaced them with two pro-American secular parties.

Ruling Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, one of the most difficult of Pakistan's provinces to manage, may help match Mr Khan's political vision with an actual track record of the service delivery that Pakistani voters value.

But for a politician whose popularity is based in large measure on his disdain for politics, getting dragged into the messy compromises that will inevitably be entailed in running a government may prove fatal to his party's future, Mr Sayeed said.

"He was good-looking, charismatic, a cricketer, a philanthropist and, importantly, not a politician," Mr Sayeed added. "That will change because he will now also have to become one."


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