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Anti-elite, anti-drone cricket star is best hope for Pakistan election – and for US

Cricket-star-turned-politician, Imran Khan, and his PTI party are best suited to lead Pakistan after its historic national election Saturday. Khan opposes US drone strikes, but a PTI victory would strengthen its democracy, the youth vote, and women's rights – making it a better US partner.

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In the Pakistani public’s eyes, Khan is the strongest critic of US drones. Sharif stated that Pakistan’s supply routes to Afghanistan will not open until US drone operations cease. But Khan took action: In October 2012, for example, he marched with Pakistani and CODEPINK protestors to drone-affected areas, and vowed that if elected he would order the Pakistani Air Force to shoot down US drones.

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US drone strikes remain a major issue for Pakistani voters. One group estimates that Since 2004, US drones have killed around 46 high-level targets, but also 3,085 other Pakistanis – 175 of them children.

Khan’s status as an outsider in traditional politics strengthens Pakistanis’ confidence that he represents their interests.  He argues drone attacks violate Pakistani sovereignty and increase recruits to the Pakistani Taliban. Khan’s position also reflects his Pashtun roots and voter base. Though Khan’s detractors named him “Taliban Khan” for not publicly condemning the Pakistani Taliban, his – and his party’s – platform largely stands in defiance of the group.

For example, women participate in and form an important block of support for PTI. Khan supports expanded literacy and repeal of the 1971 Hudood Ordinances that severely limit women’s rights as citizens in Pakistan. My research in Pakistan shows that both issues are top priorities for Pakistani women’s groups.   

Ultimately, Pakistanis want to elect a government that protects them from terrorism, Indian nuclear weapons, and US drones while improving the economy and respecting the rule of law. The world saw signs of democratic progress in Pakistan with the peaceful handover to a caretaker government last month, the April 2010 passing of a constitutional amendment to limit presidential power, and the 2007-09 Lawyer’s Movement to restore Chief Justice Chaudhry after General Musharraf illegitimately removed him from office.  

A recent survey showed just 29 percent of Pakistani youth believe democracy is the best system – a view likely informed by their experience with its failures in Pakistan. This survey also shows that 71 percent of Pakistani youth are dissatisfied with the corruption, violence, and energy crises in administrations elected by their elders.

As of January 2013, 40 percent of youth said they planned to vote in the upcoming election, but 41 percent were undecided about voting. Khan’s campaign has the potential to shift those numbers.

If 60-year old Khan (a former cricket star, remember) can fall 15 feet headfirst from a forklift and still manage to videolink from his hospital bed with thousands of supporters in Islamabad, will undecided 20-somethings still feel they can’t be bothered with election lines?

Khan and his PTI therefore represent a fresh face and a fresh start for democracy in Pakistan. He and party leaders are keen to recruit new talent throughout the party ranks, and Khan’s resilience and determination after his fall at a Lahore rally should help bring out election-day supporters.

On May 11, Pakistanis may just vote against traditional patronage networks and instead for the party of a “Khan-do” prime minister.

Meg Rincker is assistant professor of political science at Purdue University Calumet. She presented her book, “What Women Want: Global Decentralization and Democratization” at a March 2012 conference in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and it is under review at Cambridge University Press. 


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