What are the prospects of a credible alternative to the two major political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Group (PML-N), that have dominated Pakistan’s political scene since 1988? Is it possible to discover a new breed of politicians that are totally honest and fully committed to public with no personal agendas? There are no categorical answers the above questions. The PPP and the PML(N) leaders do not expect that the new breed of leaders can replace them. They think that their parties have the capacity to accommodate new aspirants in the political domain and thus they will continue to dominate politics.
Imran Khan and his young supporters think that Pakistan is at the brink of an “Imrani Revolution” that will sweep aside any political party targeted by Imran Khan. Their over-enthusiasm has led them to draw conclusions about all-Pakistan politics on the basis of Imran’s success in mobilising people in central and north Punjab, known for conservative-right wing and Islamist orientations.
Imran Khan’s display of his support in Lahore on October 30 has posed a credible challenge to the political primacy of the PPP and the PML(N). They will have to focus on two major issues to dilute the long term implications of Imran Khan’s “arrival” on the centre-stage of politics.
First, the federal and provincial governments will have to pay more attention to governance and corruption issues. The performance of these governments in managing administrative and political affairs has been abysmal. All governments are tainted with excessive use state machinery and resources for personal advantage. The ruling parties will have to improve their governance and check financial corruption that appears to have become very widespread. They will have to take steps to reduce economic pressures on the common people due to inflation, price-hike and personal insecurity. There is an urgent need to devote more attention to relief and rehabilitation work in the flood-affected areas in Sindh.
Second, the growing resentment in both major parties against personalised party management should be addressed. The PML(N) did not elect or appoint its office bearers for almost two years. Some of the posts like the Secretary General are still inactive while the decision on some appointments is awaited. Add to this intra-party factionalism and the efforts of the Chief Minister, Punjab, to run the party to serve his personal agenda, like the on-going “Go Zardari Go” campaign which has hardly any chance of succeeding within the constitutional framework.
The PPP has become the fiefdom of President Asif Ali Zardari. Some senior leaders and activists are alienated either because of the personalised management of the party or due to the poor performance of the PPP governments in Islamabad and Karachi. There are serious internal party rumblings in Sindh. The PPP will have to review its assets and liabilities in a realistic manner.
These alienated leaders, including some from the PML(Q), view Imran Khan’s rise as an opportunity to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis their current party by talking about the option of joining Imran Khan. Some of them will actually join him, hoping that the Imran wave will ensure their electoral triumph. Some people who have secure constituencies are expected to join him in the hope that they can acquire nationwide political stature by riding on Imran’s bandwagon.
The major political parties will have to take Imran Khan seriously because he is expected to cause them some electoral dent. The challenge appears stronger for the PML(N) and PML(Q) because of their ideological overlap and the fact that Imran Khan has shown strength in Central and Northern Punjab where the PML(N) has traditionally been strong.
The coming of Imran Khan can also be viewed as a sign of growing fragmentation in Pakistani politics, especially in the right of centre to rightist-Islamic political spectrum. In addition to the traditional Islamic political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami, the JUI, the Jamiat-i-Ahle Hadees (two groups), there are new Islamic groups in the field. These have sectarian-denomination based agendas and compete with each other on religious and political issues. Some of them will be contesting elections. The JUP has lost its salience but its religious-political perspective is well represented in the political domain.
Now, Imran has entered the race, appealing primarily to the right of centre, nationalist and Islamist constituency. However, he has a stronger appeal because a large number of educated people, especially the young ones, with rightist-Islamist orientations would prefer to join Imran rather than Islamic political parties that are more dogmatic and narrowly focused. Imran Khan will be competing effectively with the PML(N) and PML(Q). He will also get support from the alienated PPP activists. The floating and the first-time voters are expected to lean towards him.
There are some new groups coming up like the one being set up by Jahangir Tareen (PML-F) and others from PML(Q), projecting them as technocrats but from the same political spectrum. They will try their luck either by solo flight or by joining hands with Imran Khan.
Most of the new entrants, projecting them as the champions of corruption-free and ethnical politics, hail from the Punjab or feel comfortable there in political mobilisation. Two key questions are critical to their role. First, can they build enough support elsewhere? In other provinces, the key issues are ethnicity and provincial rights and interests which these parties are not adequately addressing.
Second, most of these groups maintain varying degrees of sympathy or support for Islamic orthodoxy and militancy. Some Islamic groups approach the Taliban phenomenon purely on sectarian-denominational basis. Imran Khan endorses the political discourse of the Taliban and wants the military to stop its operations against the Taliban and other militants.
If Imran Khan and his enthusiastic supporters want to become the number one party, they will have to sustain and enlarge their support base within and outside Punjab. They also need to provide a plan of action for the problems they identify.
Imran Khan wants everything to be left to him and that he will rectify everything once he assumes power. The one-man show will turn his party into one of the many parties that are personal fiefdoms of the leaders. He needs to do some cool-headed long-term thinking on the ways to address the problems. He cannot become a genuine alternative to the PPP and the PML(N) merely by slogans and criticism of other political leaders. It is going to be a long and arduous political competition.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.