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.

Athar Hussain/Reuters
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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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