ISLAMABAD (Nadeem Shad) – It all seemed to be going so well. At least that was how it appeared on the surface, one sweltering May evening in Lahore, the cultural heart of Pakistan. Crowds numbered in their thousands, cheering and waving flags all eagerly awaiting the words of one man. A creeping sense of genuine hope and optimism pervaded the air, a feeling absent from Pakistani politics for many years. These people had gathered to see the new political force in town, Imran Khan.
Abruptly the music stopped and an uneasy quiet descended, the once jovial throng of people now stood in near silence as the man many hoped could set Pakistan on a better more prosperous path, Imran Khan, had just fallen from the dizzying heights of public adoration (and an elevated platform), down to the hard unforgiving earth.
Imran Khan fully recovered, however his fall was a preview of his political party’s underperformance in the 2013 general election. It had seemed that Pakistan was on the cusp of radical political change with the old political parties about to be replaced by a more democratic, transparent and most importantly less corrupt government. At its helm, a famously charismatic, handsome and renowned celebrity as Prime Minister. Instead however, Nawaz Sharif, a former Prime Minister and one of the wealthiest industrialists in Pakistan was elected in a landslide victory for his Pakistan Muslim League party; and so in the aftermath several questions must be asked as to why the PTI failed to meet expectations.
Khan is founder and leader of a nationalist political party in Pakistan called the PTI or ‘Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’ literally meaning ‘Pakistan Movement for Justice’, he formed this party in 1996 as anti establishment party. For years he was on the political sidelines, labelled an amateur and in 2002 he was the only member of the party to win a seat in the national assembly.
In recent years he has come to the attention of the global audience as the face of the anti-drones movement and his vow to pull Pakistan from the ‘War on Terror’. In Pakistan he successfully branded PTI as the anti corruption party famously saying if elected to office he would end corruption in 90 days, end Pakistan’s conflict in the tribal northern regions and following in the footsteps of Clinton’s ‘New Democrats’ and Blair’s ‘New Labour’ he summed up his ideology in the 6 points of ‘Naya (New) Pakistan’. In many polls he was listed as the most popular leader in Pakistan, a dead favourite with the Youth vote, his rallies were routinely attended by people in their thousands. His policy seemed to resonate with large swathes of pakistani population so why then did his party not take the assembly and the office of Prime Minister?
Whilst there is an element of Pakistani society that is socially conservative, the PTI’s electoral fortunes were not overly influenced by this, their fortunes were instead influenced by political conservatism. It is well known that new parties and fringe parties hardly ever perform as well as their much older and larger counterparts and much of this is down to two things, credibility and party loyalty.
Therefore the PTI’s failure to win these elections is not necessarily a rejection of the PTI’s ideology but that the majority chose to vote for a party they were more familiar with, a party with more governing experience. After all, in Pakistan, party loyalty runs deep, with generations of families all voting for a particular party, this is more often than not influenced by the region they live in and in some areas by their ethnicity. The PTI has had to go up against this and despite the similarities in policy between the PML-N and PTI going into this election, a nationalist agenda for one, people chose to vote for the former over the latter because they believed it had more credibility to deliver the changes needed for Pakistan. A credibility the PTI can only grow with time and experience. In Pakistan you cannot win a general election without winning the most populous province, Punjab, and it is here the PTI need to gain the trust of the people, especially the older generations, a trust that cannot be bought with Imran Khan’s celebrity status but must be earned over time.
All that being said, and before the media mercilessly marginalises the PTI to the point ignominy, it is worth remembering folks that for a relatively new political party the PTI performed extraordinarily well, and is evidence that Pakistan is much less politically conservative than some might think.
‘It is like UKIP becoming the third largest party in Parliament’
From having virtually no presence aside from their leader’s in the Pakistani political establishment they were second in the popular vote in the general election and they made large gains, the official national assembly website puts the number of seats they won at 30 although the figure is probably closer to 35, this puts them as the third largest party in the assembly coming only a few seats behind the former ruling establishment party the PPP, with seats in important economic and political cities such as Lahore and Karachi.
On top of this, elections for the provincial assemblies took place, with the PTI making large gains not least in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where they gained enough seats to make a provincial government. So before we count the PTI as minnows its worth remembering that they have established considerable political footholds in one of the few elections they have ran in. The world must continue to keep their eyes firmly fixed on the PTI and Imran Khan, if they can show that Pakistani people their effectiveness as opposition in the assembly and their ability to govern at the provincial level then theres no reason why the PTI cannot continue to make gains and convince people to abandon traditional party loyalties. Crucially if they can deliver on stopping US drone attacks in Peshawar (the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and surrounding areas, the issue he is most widely known for and that brought him political standing, it would be a major political boost that could propel him to much greater electoral success, Imran Khan and the PTI maybe down but they are most certainly not out.
By: Nadeem Shad