Op-Ed: "Burgeoning Pakistan Could Make Room for Imran Khan"

An Op-ed in Pakistan Link by MPAC Board Member Dr. Nayyer Ali

November 22, 2011

In a stunning display, Imran Khan, the noted cricket champion and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led a massive rally of 100,000 ordinary Pakistanis, heavily weighted toward young people, in Lahore last week. Khan has been dabbling in politics since the 1990s but has never gotten much traction, so where did this rally come from and what does it mean?

Pakistani politics since the death of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1988 has been dominated by the Benazir Bhutto-led Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), based in Sindh, and the Punjabi dominated Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. Those two parties alternated four governments in the 1990s until Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a coup in 1999 that ushered in nine years of de facto military rule.

In 2008, free elections brought the PPP back to power, though Bhutto’s assassination meant that her husband Asif Ali Zardari became president and has been in charge since then. What has been frustrating to watch for many Pakistanis is that no matter how corrupt and ineffective the civilian politicians have been, both in the 1990s and since 2008, the political system seems rigged to prevent any new forces from emerging that would represent those Pakistanis that want honest effective government.  

Both the PPP and PML are feudal-based parties that essentially exist as giant patronage machines to support their workers and supporters when in power, and not to do what is best for the country. The ongoing power crisis is for example not driven by a lack of generating capacity, but because the government will not clear the circular debt issue (where one government entity is not paying another what it owes for power) thereby creating the conditions of severe power shortage that allows cronies of Zardari, who own rental power units to make huge profits. 

But during the last 20 years, a series of powerful social changes have been washing through Pakistan. The population is getting better educated, and male literacy is more than 65 percent now, and even higher under age 30. Female numbers are worse but also rising. The country is also much more urbanized, with more than half the population living in cities. This has not been reflected in the parliament, as a new census is needed to reduce the number of rural constituencies and increase the number coming from cities. This trend is gradually weakening the power of the feudal system. Meanwhile, the country is very young, with half the population under age 20. They see what is going on around the world, and what a well-run country looks like, and they want that, too. Internet use is rising, reaching almost 10 percent of the population, and there are 5 million Facebook users now in Pakistan, a group that Khan is targeting via social media. 

Khan has always ran on an anti-corruption platform and support for good governance. He did win a seat in 2003 in Parliament, but lost it in 2008. In the past decade he has also at times made remarks that were seen as pro-mullah or pro-Islamist. But he is not really part of the Islamist party network. It appears now that he has attracted the imagination of urban Pakistanis, especially young ones, looking for an alternative to the PPP and PML, and that speaks to a modern, young, and corruption-free Pakistan. Khan has made one of the centerpieces of his politics declaring an “education emergency” which is the reality of Pakistan. If a Khan government devotes huge resources to education it will be a boost to Pakistan. 

Pakistan’s electoral system is divided among more than 50 political parties, but because districts are decided by whoever got the most votes but does note require an absolute majority, any party that can consistently win 25 percent of the vote throughout the country would win the election and form the government. Khan appears to have real appeal among the urban youth. Whether that is enough to vault him into power remains to be seen.

Pakistan is overdue for a census, the last one was in 1997.  A census before the next election in 2013 would help Khan as it would shift a large number of seats to the cities, where he could do well. The PPP and PML know this, as does the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which fears a census of Karachi could hurt their standing too. For this reason, it is highly possible that a census could be delayed for two years. 

Khan earned his wealth through his talents, and there are no credible corruption charges against him. His charitable activities have earned him high standing among Pakistanis. It will be interesting if we are seeing a new era in Pakistani politics, as the old feudal system finally buckles under the weight of rising education and urbanization, and whether Imran Khan will be the beneficiary of this. Personally, I am not sure if he is the savior of Pakistan, but he can’t be any worse than Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, can he?  

- Dr. Nayyer Ali (Nali@socal.rr.com)

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