Pakistan's Political Playing Field Shifting?

While media attention is riveted on potential implications of the recent NATO strike that claimed the lives of 24 Pakistani soldiers, there are significant political developments in the country which also merit attention.

After decades of military rule and ineffective governance by Pakistan's two main political parties – the Pakistan Peoples' Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N – the country is witnessing the somewhat rapid political ascendency of Tehreek-e-Insaf, the Pakistan Movement for Justice, or PTI party leader and former world-class cricketer, Imran Khan.

This begs the question: does Khan’s rise in popularity signal a shift in Pakistan’s political playing field?

Khan formed the PTI in 1996 and, despite being a member of the national parliament from 2002 to 2007, has never managed to garner much popular support. But after languishing in the political wilderness for years, a recent PTI public rally in Lahore drew more than 100,000 people, surprising his political opponents. The international community has also been watching Khan’s increased political capital with both interest and caution.

These mixed feelings are understandable given Khan's strong statements against the “war against terror,” which have earned him the dubious label of “Taliban Khan.” Domestically some wonder whether his newfound popularity reflects a shift in public opinion, or is only the result of support by Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency, which is tired of the current political leadership’s compliance to Western dictates. Khan will probably prove less compliant to Western demands due to his insistence on self-reliance and self-determination.

But a growing number of people are asking if Khan might have the capacity to help Pakistan achieve greater stability through improved governance. Khan is a Cambridge-educated former captain of the Pakistan national cricket team. Under his captaincy, the team won its first and only World Cup victory in 1992. Khan is also a philanthropist and has established a reputable cancer hospital and research centre in Lahore, as well as an internationally affiliated college in his rural hometown of Mianwali.

Khan has begun rallying increased political support among urban constituencies, including youth, with his demand for governmental accountability and his strong opposition to cooperation with the United States against militants in the restive northwest of the country. Khan is against American drone strikes and laments the current dependency on aid from the West, something that resonates strongly with the nationalistic Pakistani mindset.

Drone strikes in particular, which have increased in number over the past two years, are unofficially condoned by the Pakistani government. But major polls indicate that a large majority of Pakistanis oppose their use due to the collateral damage that they cause.

As Khan's political relevance grows, several mainstream politicians have also become keen to join him in possible coalitions.

The increase in Khan’s political relevance appears to echo and magnify a public demand among large constituents for transparent government and a strong state that is willing and able to deal independently with its own problems.

Khan's demand for corrupt rulers’ accountability, as well as his own apparently unblemished record in this regard, make him an appealing candidate for the average Pakistani who is weary of politicians who have comfortable lifestyles but are unable to provide for citizens’ basic needs, such as education, health and sanitation facilities.

While some are concerned about his politics, and naysayers point to his inexperience in governance and inability to articulate a comprehensive set of policies to make Pakistan more prosperous and equitable, recent indications that he is increasing in popularity demonstrate a frustrated populace yearning for leaders that represent their interests.

There are also holes in Khan’s own party that mirror some of the challenges facing the majority of Pakistan’s political parties. No second or third tier of leadership has been developed within his party over the past 15 years, which indicates that Khan has not been able to transcend the dictatorial tendency which has been the bane of all major political parties within Pakistan. If these reasons behind the upsurge in his popularity are accurate, support for his party would only go up if Khan addressed this gap.

While many challenges lie in wait for Khan ahead of the next general elections, slated for 2013, what is clear is that there is a keen desire among Pakistanis for a leader who can deliver on a political platform promising equity, justice and accountability.

(Syed Mohammad Ali (ali@policy.hu) is a development analyst and columnist for the Express Tribune in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).)