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Moment that Mattered: Imran Khan claims victory in Pakistan’s general election

Imran Khan speaks at a campaign rally in Lahore on 20th July 2018


Imran Khan speaks at a campaign rally in Lahore on 20th July 2018

For many years Imran Khan’s efforts to become prime minister of Pakistan were mocked as desperate attempts to extend his fame and popularity. But on 26th July, the cricketing great finally claimed the top job. According to Omar Waraich, the deputy director for Amnesty International in South Asia, by the end of the campaign the victory was widely anticipated.

Waraich, who covered Pakistan for publications such as Time and the New Yorker before joining Amnesty, says the result was “no surprise” because it’s extremely hard for parties in Pakistan to get re-elected. Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) party also held some advantages going into the campaign. The incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party had been plagued by a Panama Papers-linked corruption scandal. This saw former leader Nawaz Sharif arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison less than two weeks before the poll, a year after the supreme court had forced him to step down as prime minister.

“Khan’s opponents were weak and divided,” says Waraich. “He had come close in the past and what resonated in 2018 was him saying, ‘You’ve tried the others; why not try me this time?’” The PTI party comfortably won the most seats, although it failed to secure a majority, meaning it had to create alliances with independent politicians to form a government.

“He has this magical sense of loyalty from his followers. They really believe in him; it’s almost like he’s a messiah. It’s extraordinary”

Waraich compares Pakistan to countries such as the US, India and Brazil, where populist ‘strongmen’ have had electoral success in recent times. “This global wave [of populism] was palpable in Pakistan,” says Waraich. “Although we have to be careful because Khan is not like Donald Trump. He is a much more complicated figure.”

Waraich has coined a term to describe Khan’s approach to politics: ‘container populism’, referring to the party leader’s habit of whipping up crowds with fiery speeches from the top of old shipping containers dumped in Pakistan’s urban centres. Khan, of course, is no stranger to excitable crowds: in March 1992 the streets of Pakistan erupted in celebration when he led the national cricket team to its first and only World Cup victory.

“There used to be a chant when the Pakistani team was down on its luck and Imran would come on and turn things around,” says Waraich. “It would go: ‘Who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan! Imran Khan!’” That chant helps explain Khan’s popularity today. “We still have this national narrative that we’re this team of great potential that has hit upon some bad luck and things haven’t worked out,” says Waraich. “But there’s this one guy who can have a solid innings and get us back into the match. There was a real sense during the campaign that we needed a hero to get us out of this mess. You really see this at Khan’s rallies. He has this magical sense of loyalty from his followers. They really believe in him; it’s almost like he’s a messiah. It’s extraordinary.”

This affection for Khan carries across Pakistani society, says Waraich. “From the most educated, Western-oriented Pakistanis to the most deeply conservative – people who would never even meet, let alone have a conversation – they all root for this guy who can one minute sound like the privileged Oxford graduate that he is and the next sound like any old hack politician from the street. But this is not affected. Being all things to all people is genuinely who he is. As a national sporting hero who’s used to everyone in Pakistan liking them, Khan is comfortable with both sides of Pakistan – and he sits on the bridge between the two.”

“When he was in opposition it was easy to say he would get rid of corruption or tackle poverty but now he is having to confront the reality”

After winning the elections, Khan has spent much of his first 100 days in office caught between conservative elements and his reform agenda. The highest-profile example of this tension was the case of Asia Bibi, whose death penalty conviction for blasphemy was overturned by Pakistan’s supreme court on 31st October. Her release was followed by three days of violent protests by Islamist hardliners, which forced the government to prevent her from leaving the country. Supporters of the Christian mother of five, who spent eight years on death row after being accused by her neighbours of insulting the Prophet Mohammad, say that Khan’s efforts to appease protesters amount to a “death sentence” for Bibi.

“With the Bibi case he went on TV and said we are going to uphold the supreme court ruling and that these thugs had better get off the streets, yet two days later his government capitulated,” says Waraich. “The two sides of Khan clash constantly,” he adds. “He gave a very good speech the day after the election in which he promised a raft of reforms and there was a real sense of ‘Wow, perhaps things are going to be different’. Then he got to parliament and the opposition was protesting and he turned to demagoguery. When he was in opposition it was easy to say he would get rid of corruption or tackle poverty but now he is having to confront the reality. During the campaign he said Pakistan will never go with a begging bowl to the international community. Yet in his first 100 days he went to both Saudi Arabia and China, and these visits were seen very much in that vein by his critics.”

Waraich, who has interviewed Khan on a number of occasions, does believe that his reformist rhetoric is sincere. “I am in no doubt there is a genuine side to him that wants to tackle poverty and issues of health, and protect women and minorities,” explains Waraich. “But as he has quickly discovered, Pakistan is a very difficult country to run. The fact, for example, that 25 million Pakistani kids are out of school is not the fault of a single government, but all of them collectively – and unpicking this is very challenging.”

Waraich says that Khan’s politics have changed significantly over the years since he founded the centrist PTI party in 1996. “The Imran Khan we saw in this election was very different to the anti-establishment figure he cut in the Pervez Musharraf years [2001-2008]. Then he would speak out about human rights violations and was critical of the military establishment. Subsequently he has become more religious, more nationalistic and more populist – and, critically for this election, he was accommodated by the military establishment. In fact, there is no more pro-military political figure in Pakistan than Khan right now – which is quite some journey from where he was in the 1990s.”

Khan’s newly cosy relationship with the military has prompted allegations that the army fixed the election on his behalf by intimidating journalists and editors, and by arresting and threatening opponents. Nawaz Sharif, who was released from prison on 19th September, claims that his downfall was engineered by the military. Khan denies that he colluded with the armed forces.

Will Khan be the first Pakistani prime minister to complete a full term in office? The country has been ruled by its military for around half of its post-independence history, and every prime minister has been forced out of the job before the end of their first term by coups or corruption allegations. Waraich says the jury is still out, but that Khan has a better chance than his predecessors. “There is no credible opposition right now,” he says. “Khan is pretty much running the entire show so he has got political longevity, not least because of this unswerving popularity among his core base. But the role of the army is the big question. Will they give him the space he needs to begin his reform.

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