Walking a political tightrope in Pakistan

IMRAN KHALID
Published

Disregarding a major terrorist attack that claimed 31 lives in Quetta on election day morning, Pakistanis voted in large numbers (with a voter turnout rate of 51.85 percent) to give their forceful verdict in the favor of cricket-hero-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has been striving in the political arena for the last 22 years to win the coveted position of the prime minister of Pakistan.

In the highly contentious general election for national and provincial assemblies, labeled as "blatantly" rigged by his jailed chief opponent, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has established its lead in a very robust manner.

During the election campaign, political observers and opinion polls were predicting a hung parliament, but the PTI has surprised everyone with a fairy-tale kind of performance and proven such analysis completely wrong. Out of 272 constituencies of the National Assembly, the PTI outclassed its rivals in more than 115 seats and paved the way for Imran Khan to become the new prime minister – obviously, he is all set to establish his simple majority after getting support from independent candidates as well other smaller parties.

The voters have overwhelmingly given him a chance on the national level on the basis of his party's five-year performance in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI has made noticeable improvements in social infrastructure and services. The performance of Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) was disappointing as far as the numbers of winning seats are concerned. However, his party was able to put up a tough fight and barely allowed the PTI to win, with only thin margins in many of the constituencies.

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by the son of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, did not show much improvement compared to the 2013 election results and it remained confined to its stronghold in the province of Sindh. Similarly, all the religiopolitical parties, including the five-party alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) were dismissed by the voters. So, now the emerging scenario is that Imran Khan's PTI will be making governments in the center as well as in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, while the PPP will be retaining the province of Sindh and a rag-tag alliance will be heading Baluchistan.

The allegations of post-poll rigging are lurking in the air and the MMA's Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Shahbaz Sharif, the current president of the PML-N, are coordinating to start a protest movement against the alleged electoral irregularities, but the fact is that the opposition parties do not have enough stamina and street power to launch an agitation at the moment to cause any palpable disruption in the transfer of power to the PTI. After two years of constant agitation and wrangling in the political theater, a kind of fatigue has enveloped the public mind and any call for protest is not likely to receive positive responses – even the die-hard supporters of the PML-N and other parties will refrain from making too much noise at a time when the establishment and judiciary are not in a mood to allow any disturbance.

The PPP is more concerned with preserving its government in Sindh; therefore, it will also not go along with the MMA and PML-N "too far" in this protest against the election rigging. Right now, the Pakistani public, in general, is divided into two broad groups; the first group consists of Imran Khan's supporters, who are in a state of euphoria over his electoral success, and the second group belongs to anti-Imran Khan elements, who have apparently accepted his victory as a bitter reality and now they are mentally ready to give him a "chance." So, there is a general consensus among the majority of the Pakistanis that "let's give a chance to Imran this time." Against this backdrop, the politics of agitation is not expected to gain any momentum in the coming days.

During the month-long election campaign, the main focus of the PTI was its anti-corruption theme "Naya Pakistan" (New Pakistan) and its past performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while the PML-N also tried a two-prong campaign and tried to win the voters' sympathies for its jailed leader Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, as well as to sell the past performance of the party in the province of Punjab.However, other political parties failed to present anything new, except for PPP's Bilawal Bhutto, who proudly launched a new manifesto of his party and did his best to promote it indubitably.

Other than that Pakistan witnessed one of the muddiest and horrid election campaigns in recent history. Foul language and a despicable exchange of personal taunts was the most aching feature of the election campaign and even Imran Khan could not restrain himself on many occasions with many such below-the-belt scoffs against his rivals.

Imran Khan, although unintentionally, has injected toxic elements in the culture of his PTI and this has been validated unashamedly during his election campaign. This bitterness and disrespect for the opponents have seeped into the culture of PTI and Imran Khan will have to work consciously to expunge this factor gradually from his party.

Now the biggest challenge for Imran Khan is how to live up to the exorbitantly high expectations of his supporters who have voted him to power in hope to see the emergence of a "Naya Pakistan" – a progressive Pakistan free from corruption and injustice – as was being promised by him for the last 22 years.

From the very first day in politics, Imran Khan has been campaigning for his one-point agenda; eradication of corruption from the country. He has single-handedly worked on this campaign against the widespread corruption in society, particularly in politics. He has been very consistent and resolute on his anti-corruption campaign throughout his political career. Factually speaking, the voters have responded to him primarily on the basis of his sincere anti-corruption slogans. The level of expectations is very high and Imran Khan will have to execute his anti-corruption drive diligently and with utmost impartiality.

There are many people in his close circle who have dubious reputations with regard to their involvement in corruption, and there will be immense pressure on Imran Khan to cleanse his party from such elements that have the potential to damage him in the coming days. A plethora of internal and external challenges – including a debilitating economy, cross-border terrorism, souring relations with the neighboring countries, social development at the grassroots level and sluggish industrial growth – is hovering around Imran Khan's ascension to power and he will have to tread very carefully while executing his ambitious party manifesto. Unlike his predecessors, Imran Khan will be appraised very closely by his detractors – as well as his supporters – and his every move will be scrutinized at a micro level.

* Freelance columnist based in Karachi, Pakistan

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