Amid protests over alleged vote rigging and an ineffective Election Commission, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has proven it is a force important in Pakistan’s future
Imran Khan was never going to win the elections. For Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) supporters, as ideal as the overblown ‘clean sweep’ would have been, the significance of the party’s achievements in Saturday’s elections cannot be underappreciated. After 17 years of uphill struggle, the emergence of this third force has injected fresh blood in to the country’s severely anaemic political system, which has seen two almost equally corrupt dynasties loot and plunder to spectacular effect over the past three decades.
In what was a record-breaking turnout, the PTI’s 32-odd seats must be seen as a victory for several reasons, not least the fact that only a week ago the party had no official presence in the National Assembly.
Pakistan is a country in which wealthy men enter politics with the aim of becoming yet wealthier: established businessmen, tribal leaders, seasoned criminals – the lot. Indeed it is thought the industrialist Prime Minister-to-be, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Noon (PML-N), nurtured by General Zia in the 1980s, experienced a 4000% increase in wealth and rapid proliferation of personal assets over his two short lived terms in office. Though with promising beginnings following the fall of dictator General Ayub Khan, over the years the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) hierarchy has behaved yet worse, desecrating the socialism of its manifesto. It is thus remarkable that the comparatively cash-strapped PTI have come this far, the vast majority of their candidates comprising teachers, doctors and lawyers among others, around 40% of whom were unknown until recently.
Erudite journalist and commentator Hassan Nissar, himself an ardent PTI supporter, also sees the plus side; criticising Khan’s party for foolishly hosting lengthy inter-party elections only months ago and thus compromising their election campaign, he feels their being in opposition is a blessing of sorts. With so many newcomers to mainstream politics among their ranks, five years in opposition will enable them to learn the art of statecraft.
The PTI saw its beginnings in 1997, when troubled by what he saw around him, Imran Khan decided to enter the political arena following his construction of the country’s only cancer hospital, which treats the majority of its patients free of charge. In the early years the party wasn’t taken seriously. Mocked by established politicians and journalists alike, it suffered several blows and the ex-cricketer struggled desperately to collect the funds required to keep his dream afloat. It was during this period Imran describes in his 2011 autobiography that his marriage disintegrated, fuelled partly by relentless and often racist press attacks on his then wife Jemima Khan. Among regular citizens, the mantra remained for a long time that he was a good man but would get nowhere in politics.
Ignoring critics however, he persisted, and after a brief and unfortunate period of flirtation with General Musharraf which he now regrets, by 2008, Khan’s movement began to gain traction. This was facilitated significantly by internet campaigns as well as his appearances on private news channels which ironically were able to proliferate rapidly under the aforementioned dictator. After attracting such well-known figures as Jahanghir Tareen, Assed Umer, Javed Hashmi and former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, by 2012, the PTI was able to enjoy rallies attended by hundreds of thousands, feats only before seen during the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the PPP in the 1970s.
Khan’s party appeals in particular to the educated middle class youth, attracted to his uncompromising positions on a variety of matters and sheer bluntness when taking on a decadent elite. The PTI has stood on a platform supporting anti-corruption, advocating reformation of the national accountability bureau and asking that politicians declare their personal assets among other measures; a fully independent judiciary (traditionally the judiciary acts as a tool of the executive); taxing the wealthy (in Pakistan, only the poorest strata pays tax); healthcare and educational reform; and a general decentralisation of power. Perhaps most significantly, the party advocates withdrawal from widely unpopular western wars, including disallowing the US to conduct extrajudicial killings via unmanned aerial drones in the country’s troubled tribal areas.
It is under the pretext of Khan’s standing on the last point that detractors label him sympathetic towards the Taliban; a bad move, they argue, in a country which experiences terrorist attacks on an almost weekly basis.
Much of this is however disingenuous. In recent years it has become a sign of sophistication in segments of the liberal press to deride the PTI chairman, with many going as far as to dub him ‘Taliban Khan’. The PTI leader argues we cannot bomb fundamentalists into submission. He stresses many of his detractors view effect without cause; in tribal regions forsaken by the central government and completely lacking in infrastructure, every time a drone attack kills civilians under the pretext of tackling extremism, what can be expected other than for affected peoples to join arms with militants? Negotiation is the only way forward.
He has also been criticised for his position on the country’s notorious blasphemy laws, which thus far no politicians seem willing enough to reform, no doubt in fear of being targeted by religious fanatics. He states they shouldn’t be scrapped, but rather, the problem lies in the laws’ interpretation. Equally worrying have been his pronouncements on the much stigmatised Ahmedi community, though Pakistan’s other parties have behaved no differently here, and unlike Khan haven’t had the bravery to call-out the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant outfit responsible for heinous massacres of largely Shia Muslims.
The next five years will prove crucial if the PTI is to succeed in one day running the country. Ahead of it lie several challenges, internal and external.
If the PTI is – as leading PML-N figures have hinted at – to have Imran Khan as leader of the opposition it will have to go about negotiating with smaller parties including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party with which it has had several spats in the past. Another problem it faces is in Khyber Pakhtun Khwa (KPK), the province in which it won most of its seats, in the form of Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman or ‘Maulvi Diesel’ (thus named following a corruption scandal which saw him strive to illegally secure diesel contracts). Rahman only weeks ago comically declared it ‘haram’ (forbidden) to vote for the PTI, and further added that the former cricketer is in fact working for the ‘Jewish Lobby’. Though Nawaz Sharif declared he will respect the PTI’s mandate in the North West where Khan is to form a provincial government, Rahman will do what he can to make matters as difficult as possible in what is Pakistan’s most difficult to govern province. Indeed whether Khan’s mantra of talking to the Taliban will prove fruitful is also yet to be seen.
Another battle the party faces involves vote rigging, which it maintains it has been a victim of. Protests continue in regions up and down the country, and the PTI is preparing a white paper to present to the Supreme Court in days to come. In Karachi, rigging allegedly came at the hands of the MQM. A party famous for its thuggery and extortion racquets, it is reported to have forced PTI supporters out of polling booths on Saturday, costing the seat of Dr Arif Alvi. Its London based leader Altaf Hussain threatened protestors and journalists with violence just yesterday, and is said to be in a rage following the announcement of a recount on May 19.
In Lahore, PTI supporters feel soon-to-be ruling party bigwig, Saad Rafiq, violated several electoral rules, including physically electioneering at a women’s polling station while votes were being given. He also allegedly had the doors forcibly shut in one particular polling station while party minions stamped and entered fraudulent ballots with police aid. Members of the former ruling party the PPP too have complained of voting irregularities. Prominent lawyer and senior party figure, Aitzaz Ahsan, highlighted the fact that some constituencies experienced a 150% voter turnout – extra votes seemingly materialising out of thin air.
In the final chapter of his autobiography, Imran Khan states:
‘Sadly, more than sixty years after its birth, neither Iqbal nor Jinnah would recognise the country Pakistan has become. Economically ruined by a ruling elite hungry for money and power, it has become the only nuclear armed Islamic country, yet cannot protect its people from near daily bombings and is one of only four countries in the world that have never beaten polio. A succession of military rulers and corrupt civilian governments has been unable to deliver even the most basic services like healthcare and education to the ordinary people in whose name the country was created.’
It is now up to his party, which must be held to scrutiny by its supporters, to demonstrate that it is any different in office. Certainly within the Northern territories, its much-sloganeered ‘Naya (new) Pakistan’ could be within grasp.
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