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Opinion

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.

By Meg Rincker / May 10, 2013

Pakistani politician Imran Khan (of the PTI party) addresses his supporters in Karachi, Pakistan, May 7. Op-ed contributor Meg Rincker says a PTI victory in national elections Saturday would signal 'a break from patronage politics as usual, and a move toward real democracy and better rights for women and minorities in Pakistan.'

Athar Hussain/Reuters

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Hammond, Ind.

Pakistan’s national election on Saturday is an historic event – the country’s first transfer of power from one civilian government to another. Whoever leads the party that wins the most parliamentary seats in this high-stakes – and far too violent – campaign will have a considerable challenge building up this shaky democracy in a troubled region.

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No man is better suited for that than cricket-star-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who leads the Pakistan Movement for Justice Party (PTI). He’s recovering from a serious fall while campaigning, but even from his hospital bed he’s still speaking out. While his party may not be leading in all the polls, Mr. Khan personally polls ahead of his main opponent. And he best serves Pakistan’s interests by standing fiercely against the use of US drones in Pakistan, against corrupting patronage politics, and for women’s rights.

Though Khan is opposed to US drone strikes, a PTI victory also benefits the US and its relationship with Pakistan in the long run. It signals a break from patronage politics as usual, and a move toward real democracy and better rights for women and minorities in Pakistan.   

Khan is particularly popular with the youth, but his support is dispersed and his party (PTI) solidly leads in just one of four provinces. Key is whether the PTI vote is sufficiently concentrated to win districts and whether voter turnout exceeds predictions. Thirty percent of voters are aged 19-25, and many of them will be voting for the first time. If Saturday’s turnout exceeds 50 percent, Khan could pull off an electoral upset.

His main rival is Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) – and the frontrunner. (The scandal-plagued incumbent party, the Pakistani People’s Party, is too discredited in the eyes of voters to stand a chance at winning.) But Khan stands apart, literally, because of his “third party” status – his role outside the traditional two-party system and its support network of patronage.

Pakistani elections are traditionally dominated by local patronage networks, which back Army candidates, industrialists, or landowners – the “feudal elites.” In rural areas of Pakistan, poor voters support the feudal elites’ preferred candidate. These elites then offer entire blocks of voters to politicians in exchange for access to public services and assurances they will not upset the status quo by advancing legislation on land reform, women’s rights, or protections for religious minorities.

Terrorism provides the backdrop for Pakistani patronage networks – and the 2013 election campaign. Terrorists carried out suicide bombings of Shiites, Christians, and their moderate allies seeking changes to anti-blasphemy laws in the cities of Rawalpindi, Quetta, and Lahore. The Pakistani Taliban assassinated the Punjab governor and the federal minorities minister in 2011.

Leading up to elections, the Pakistani Taliban has targeted three parties that are either secular or that publicly condemn Taliban attacks. Notably, the Taliban has not targeted parties of candidates who criticize US drones and are in favor of holding discussions with Taliban: Mr. Sharif’s pro-business PML-N, and Khan’s PTI.

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