Imran Khan is winning support, but can he avoid corruption?by Mary Fitzgerald / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Imran Khan: surging in popularity, but winning power involves unsavoury compromises
“Oh God, he’s chewing gum,” a party operative whispers. “That’s not good.” We’re squatting barefoot in a mosque in rural Punjab, craning over a sea of heads as local dignitaries make speeches. In the centre, settled on cushions flanked by party officials, sits Imran Khan: freshly showered, wearing an impeccable shalwar kameez and a look of concentration. The only oversight is the gum.
For 15 years, Pakistan’s greatest living sporting legend languished on the sidelines of Pakistani politics: his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), holds just one seat in parliament, its leader written off by Islamabad’s commentariat as arrogant and naïve. But as things now stand, Imran Khan could become a major political player.
The change came in late 2011. Squeezed by the stagnant economy and corruption, smarting from humiliations doled out by the United States and fed up of the same old political faces—Sharifs, Bhutto minions minus their charismatic leader, Musharraf’s telecasts from London—Pakistan’s middle classes had few other places to look. Untainted by time in power, Imran has become, for many, the least worst option. In particular, his vow to end hereditary politics, his broader message of hope and change and his promise to restore Pakistani pride and “self-respect” resonates with the aspirant and frustrated young: nearly 70 per cent of the population is under 30. Added to this, the army detests President Zardari’s administration and sees in Imran an amenable future partner.
After a rally in Lahore on 31st October drew more than 100,000 people, the media began to take him seriously. Polls show increasing support, and senior figures from other parties have started to flock to the PTI. New political alliances have brought more resources, and Khan’s face now appears almost hourly on Pakistan’s cycle of news and political chat shows. In Pakistan, polls are unreliable and it’s impossible to tell how much of the hyperbole surrounding Khan will translate into votes in the March Senate elections. If Pakistan directly elected its president, it is conceivable that Khan would win, but its parliamentary elections demand many local compromises.
So what does he stand for? During a long, bumpy journey in a convoy of white 4X4s he tells me much that will be music to liberal western ears. “We must invest massively in education—in fact, declare a national education emergency.” He’d pull the army out of Pakistan’s…