Pakistan’s Political Star Imran Khan Down, Not Out

The former cricketer will have a chance to build his party in opposition and emerge stronger.

Pakistani politician Imran Khan watches a rally in  Karachi, December 25, 2011
Pakistani politician Imran Khan watches a rally in Karachi, December 25, 2011 (Tehreek-e-Insaf)

The political tsunami that Pakistan’s Imran Khan promised, and was so sure of achieving, never came. His party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, fell almost a hundred seats short of Nawaz Sharif’s conservative Muslim League which is now set to form a government.

The former cricketer’s meteoric rise in the past few years was perhaps the most notable feature of this month’s election. The massive turnout at his rallies in politically significant cities including Karachi and Lahore and the apparent appeal of his proclaimed “new Pakistan” led many to believe that he would be able to challenge the dominance of the Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Muslim League.

Two things seemed to work in Khan’s favor: his personal reputation and a general anti-incumbency sentiment in Pakistan. The latter was restricted not only to the People’s Party government but extended to the entire political system which included Sharif, a former premier. Khan exploited it well by focusing on issues that were bound to find a receptive audience. In particular, he launched a strong critique against corruption, the perks and privileges enjoyed by government officials, especially the unofficial exemption from paying taxes, and Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and the resultant drone strikes on its soil.

The fact that Khan had little of a political career also benefited him as he was viewed as an outsider. His lack of ties with Pakistan’s political elite set him apart from the rest of the field. His successful management of a cancer hospital in Lahore, in a country where much of the health sector is in shambles, was applauded even by his critics.

However, as the initial euphoria about him waned, flaws became apparent. While he rightly identified Pakistan’s problems, he offered little in terms of comprehensive solutions, his proposals being deemed “idealistic to the extent of being simplistic.”

Khan proposed to solve the country’s revenue collection problem by setting a better example which supposedly would have inspired Pakistanis to pay more taxes. He seemed to blame the United States entirely for fueling Islamic insurgency by targeting suspected terrorists with unmanned aerial vehicles while refusing to speak out against the Taliban, alienating urban voters who were otherwise his main supporters.

Khan’s talk of a “new Pakistan” and promises of “change” were further tainted by his party’s inclusion of defectors as well as stalwarts of the old political system. Others resigned from the party, claiming that it had strayed from its original ideology.

In the absence of a convincing platform, Khan’s own reputation and widespread anti-establishment sentiment could only have taken him so far. The Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party, for all their flaws, still have strong foundations in their respective strongholds, evidenced by their performance in Punjab and Sindh, respectively.

All is not lost for Imran Khan. He may not have succeeded in “sweeping the elections” but his performance was a significant improvement from his previous outings. From having secured only one seat in 2002, his party emerged with a plurality in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where dissatisfaction with American drone strike is highest. Khan will be able to form the provincial government there.

Nationally, Khan’s may yet morph into a credible alternative to the major parties. It won’t have to compromise on its positions in a coalition government, rather develop its platform more comprehensively and prepare to pose a more formidable challenge in the next election.