Imran Khan needs to hit the reset button

Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, addresses a protest rally in Peshawar on November 23, 2013. A Majeed / AFP Photo
Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, addresses a protest rally in Peshawar on November 23, 2013. A Majeed / AFP Photo

Three years ago, cricket star Imran Khan burst onto Pakistan’s political stage, promising to provide alternative leadership to a country beset with corruption.

His rallying call of “change” touched the hearts of Pakistanis, convincing many that he could make it happen. From nowhere, his party won enough seats in the 2013 general election to become the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, the lower house of the federal Parliament, and to form a coalition government in the north-west province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

That stunning success established his Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party, or Movement for Justice, as the federal government-in-waiting and it was widely expected that its support base would continue to rise steadily in the lead-up to the 2018 election.

Mr Khan had five years in opposition to consolidate the PTI’s popularity and extend it to the southern half of the country, where it had little success in the 2013 general election.

By focusing on the promised delivery of exemplary governance to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the PTI had the opportunity to showcase the revolutionary change Mr Khan had promised.

Similarly, Mr Khan’s personal charisma and oratorical skill threatened to overshadow the dull politicians of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. A fan of the Westminster style of opposition, he was in a position to form a shadow cabinet to challenge the government on governance and policy by presenting better solutions in the form of proposed legislation.

Instead, the public’s excitement for Mr Khan is fading into scepticism because of his obsession with overthrowing prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

The PTI has neglected Parliament as a forum, empowering former president Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as the legitimate opposition. Subsequently, the PPP is showing signs of making a comeback from its electoral drubbing.

The PTI has also neglected governance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as exemplified by its failure to spend its development budget in consecutive financial years. That has played into the hands of Mr Sharif, who is banking on infrastructure development to win him a fourth term in office.

It has also created space for Mr Zardari’s ally, the Awami National Party, to revive the historic Pashtun nationalist narrative of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa politics. With his tactics backfiring, it is time for a rethink by the Khan camp.

He should start by paying attention to the electorate.

The PTI came close to causing major upsets in two recent by-elections in the populous eastern province of Punjab, Mr Sharif’s stronghold. That exposed voter weariness with eight consecutive years of PML-N governance.

However, a third by-election in the southern port city of Karachi was won by the PPP, partly because ethnic Pashtun voters in the constituency deserted the PTI, underscoring the party’s failure to mobilise support in southern Sindh province.

Parallel to the three by-elections, the PTI held rallies in Karachi and Lahore to build momentum for the Khan campaign to seek the disqualification of Mr Sharif on the grounds that his adult children owned undeclared offshore companies in Panama, allegedly established with ill-gotten proceeds.

The rallies were notable for poor levels of attendance by party members, and for the disappointment evident on the faces of Mr Khan’s closest aides. The low turnout reflected concerns among many PTI supporters about the wisdom of Mr Khan’s agitational politics.

Others were absent because they are upset at the party being hijacked by veteran politicians who joined the PTI to rescue failing careers. Both issues are undermining the credibility of the PTI, as well as the public’s trust in Mr Khan’s judgment.

Further damage will be inflicted if Mr Khan’s planned march on Raiwind, a Lahore suburb where the Sharif family estate is located, does not attract significant numbers of supporters.

The onus for change is thus shifting on to Mr Khan himself. He must find ways of reinvigorating enthusiasm for the PTI agenda of change. To do so would require him to absorb the lessons of three years of post-election politics. That would entail a shift in the focus of the PTI back to exemplary governance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and to seizing the initiative in Parliament. It would also require fresh faces and better qualified voices to represent the party.

Mr Khan’s critics argue he is an autocrat and lacks the requisite adaptability to admit his mistakes. They charge that Mr Khan’s reliance on agitational politics demonstrates a selfish ambition to become Pakistan’s prime minister at any cost, including a coup. His detractors further point to double standards in his politics, such as his reliance on financiers who, like the Sharif family, have owned offshore companies in Panama.

It is up to him to prove them wrong. What is certain is that rhetoric alone will not win Mr Khan the 2018 general election, which is drawing relentlessly closer.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad

Published: September 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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