A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. So in the four years since I interviewed Imran Khan, Pakistan’s heart-throb cricketer-turned-politician, he has gone from heading a party thrashed in the 2002 elections to the leader of an army of youthful enthusiasts, and billed as a potential ‘third force’ stirring up Pakistani politics.
Is the former Pakistan cricket captain ready for the captaincy of his country? The forthcoming elections, scheduled for next May at the latest, provide a challenge and an opportunity for Khan. He predicts a “tsunami” for the party he founded, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, or PTI), vowing to end the rule of “tyranny” in Pakistan. However some Islamabad observers say that the charismatic but egotistical Khan is his own worst enemy. To secure a decent number of seats in the 342-seat National Assembly his organisational skills will be put to the test, and he will need a national network stretching way beyond his home turf of Punjab.
Khan founded PTI in 1996, while married to British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, on an anti-corruption platform. It was a rich seam to mine, and in the era of President George W. Bush the CIA drone attacks on the tribal areas bordering on Afghanistan – stepped up by President Obama – provided him with another major campaign theme. He claims that Pakistan’s participation in the Bush “war on terror” has destroyed the country. He told me back in 2008 that the attacks targeting the Pakistan Taliban had been counter-productive, leading to a “factory of terror” and“approximately one million” people taking up arms in the tribal areas.
His party has a history of boycotting elections, including the 2008 general election and by-elections in Punjab last February. In 2002, he won the only PTI parliamentary seat (and resigned as an MP in 2007). His party remains untested at a national level, says Samina Ahmed, the Islamabad-based South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group.
“We need to know what his party can do through the ballot box, not through the media,” she says. Ahmed also queried some of Khan’s election promises, including a 90-day programme to eliminate corruption, as “a little simplistic”.
She wondered about the long-term effect on sections of Pakistani youth from Khan’s constant anti-American rhetoric. “Will they think America is the root of all evil, will they be radicalised?”
Khan’s sympathy for the military – blamed for the country’s dysfunctional government over decades – and association with the jihadi Pakistan Defence Council have also been criticised.
But there is no doubt that Khan, who turns 60 in November, has shaken up Pakistani politics by appealing to young, mostly urban voters disaffected with the traditional patronage-based politics. The civilian political landscape has long been dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party of current President Asif Ali Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif. They were stunned when more than a hundred thousand people turned out in October 2011 at a rally in Lahore in support of PTI. Khan, with his craggy good looks, is now Pakistan’s most popular politician after the late Benazir Bhutto.
“In many respects the political environment is more ripe for a ‘third force’ than ever before,” says Maleeha Lodhi, one of Pakistan’s leading commentators and a former ambassador.
But can Khan transform his popularity into votes in the next general election? “A leader’s personal charisma alone is insufficient for any enduring political transformation,” Lodhi commented.