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The Political Future of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf

Sumita Kumar is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 06, 2012

    Imran Khan seems to have taken Pakistan by storm. He himself prefers to liken his crowd of followers to a ‘tsunami’. The latest manifestation of his fast growing popularity is the huge rally at the Quaid’s mausoleum in Karachi on December 25, 2011. In a nation beleaguered by a multitude of problems ranging from a deteriorating law and order situation to massive power cuts and a sliding economy, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have become a beacon for change. However, the question remains as to whether PTI, a party which has had negligible political success till date, will acquire a national character in the months leading up to the next general elections scheduled for 2013.

    One of Khan’s main target audiences is the youth of Pakistan. That he is able to woo them is obvious given the response generated on social networking sites. He has also attracted the urban middle class. Yet, his party lacks the deeply entrenched organisational structures that well established parties like the PPP and PML-N can boast of. This would make it difficult for his party to make inroads into the rural areas, control over which is a defining factor for electoral success, and further given that the feudal system is still intact wherein votes are cast on the basis of biradari.

    PTI has moved from being a one man party and is attracting seasoned politicians from other parties like the PPP, PML-N as well as the PML-Q. These people, it is hoped, will draw on their well established vote banks to bring success to the PTI. However, the question remains whether these people will be able to engender a change in the status quo in matters of governance. Imran Khan’s promises have mostly dwelt on the one point agenda of rooting out corruption. It remains to be seen whether the party leadership formulates a wider programme, which takes into account a land reform system or a financial plan or a social plan for Pakistan that would assuage the feelings of Pakistan’s citizenry.

    Imran Khan could perhaps count on the support of the religious parties for whom he is known to have sympathies, especially the Jamaat-i-Islami. His anti-American stance, espousal of the policy of talking to the Taliban as a strategy towards peace, and his lack of enthusiasm for military action in FATA are sure to win favour with this constituency. His promises for establishing an Islamic welfare state have possibly been made in the hope of making the religious right happy. However, his alignment with the religious right will pose contradictions and raise questions about his party’s ability to deal with issues like blasphemy, given the high level of religious intolerance within Pakistani society. It is possible that he is being propped up by the Pakistan army in order to undercut the support base of the PML-N, given past animosity. Speculation is rife on this score. Yet, Imran Khan’s strong espousal of the ISI and the army coming under civilian control cannot but be unpalatable to the army high command, and leaves room for doubt about his acceptability to them.

    Nawaz Sharif has upped the ante by taking the government to the Supreme Court over Memogate. There is a possibility that the tensions between the civilian government and the establishment over memogate may just result in early elections. The situation would become clear after the Senate elections in March, and the resultant party positions. However, the tussle between the two mainstream parties may in fact end up benefiting the PTI. Imran Khan has attracted sizeable crowds in the urban areas of central and northern Punjab, and the PTI’s hold over southern Punjab has acquired greater strength after former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi (a former PML-N politician from south Punjab) and others with influence in the region joined the party. In Sindh, the MQM leadership has shown support for the PTI and is obviously keeping its options open for any future machinations. Imran Khan is hoping to use the prevalent discontent amongst the people in Balochistan to fortify his position, by pledging to address their grievances. While there are rumours that the insecurity caused by the sudden rise of Imran Khan’s party may bring the leadership of the PPP and PML-N together to discuss possible cooperation, their earlier failed attempts at collaboration do not provide any confidence on that score. While the PTI may or may not be able to garner a majority vote, it is possible that it could become a major player in case of a hung assembly.