A Growing Political Party in Pakistan

A cricket champion predicts victory in the upcoming election.

The captain of Pakistan’s only World Cup-winning cricket team is predicting another victory — this time for the leadership of his country.

Imran Khan enjoyed a 20-year career with the Pakistan national team, culminating in the country’s only World Cup victory in 1992. After retiring from cricket, Khan entered politics, founding the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in 1996. The party’s stated goal is to eliminate corruption from politics and purports to be a real alternative to the established political parties. By focusing on populist rhetoric of removing “criminal” politicians who avoid paying taxes, in combination with his high profile as a national sports hero, Khan has been successful at sparking the interest of average citizens in a way perhaps no other Pakistani politician ever has.

In protest of the corruption they see in the Pakistan political system, Khan’s PTI party boycotted the 2008 general election. Though at the time the party was too small to affect the outcome of the election, public support for the party has doubled in the past year to 20 percent. Khan’s huge political rallies in Lahore and Karachi in late 2011 attracted the kind of cheering supporters usually found at a sporting event.

In a February 2012 article in The Economist, Khan denied having bussed in people or used Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency to build the crowds at these rallies. Though it is unusual for Pakistan, Khan said that so many ordinary people came forward with donations, the rallies actually produced a profit.

But Khan has two major challenges if his party is to sweep to victory as he predicts.

First, with six major political parties and dozens of minor parties, the party with the most votes will almost certainly have to form a coalition with other parties in order to form the government. While Khan’s party would naturally align with Islamist conservatives who share the same anti-American sentiment and view American military involvement in Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty, other potential allies are not as clear.

His second major challenge has been pointed out by some of those potential allies. Former Pakistan president Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, said that while Khan’s popularity has made him a “force to be reckoned with”, the PTI lacks the experience necessary to turn that popularity into electoral gains. Critics say Khan is prone to taking the popular position in a given situation, which leads to the perception that he has inconsistent views. Though he has called himself a liberal, he also appeared on television denouncing “liberal scum”.

He also presents unrealistically simple solutions for complex problems. For example, his plan for the contested territory of Kashmir is simply for India to surrender it to Pakistan. Critics point out this is no plan at all and would therefore lead to little change in the region. Likewise, Khan has pledged to eliminate corruption in the government within 90 days of taking power, simply by setting a good example and appointing an ethical cabinet. But such an approach fails to address the longstanding, entrenched, systemic corruption his party has criticized in politics, the bureaucracy, and the military in Pakistan.

Despite his enormous popularity, Khan may discover if he is to lead a coalition government, the degree of compromise required to gain consensus could look a lot like politics as usual.

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