The emergence of Imran Khan reflects disillusionment with both politicians and generals
“HE’S THE MAN!” purrs the cosmopolitan young media-studies graduate at Punjab University in Lahore. A group of a dozen or so contemporaries broadly shares her enthusiasm for Imran Khan, the rising star of Pakistani politics. Even an angry sceptic, who sees him as “the new blue-eyed boy of the establishment”, admits that he would vote for him.
Politically, Mr Khan has been on a slow-burning fuse that did not go off until 15 years after he formed his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and nearly 20 after he captained his country to its only victory ever in the cricket world cup. After the PTI boycotted the most recent general election, in 2008, his political career seemed destined to fizzle out. But a huge rally in Lahore in October 2011 showed that he would be an important figure in the general election to be held by early 2013. The Lahore rally was followed by several others, including a massive gathering in Karachi on Christmas Day, the birthday of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Mr Khan likes to talk of the “tsunami” he has created.
Many observers assume that Mr Khan’s emergence has been assisted by “the establishment”, a common euphemism for the army. It is true that the army has a history of trying to bolster “third forces” in Pakistani politics, to weaken the two big civilian parties that it has in the past turfed out in coups—the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which heads the present ruling coalition.
Yet, whatever behind-the-scenes help or encouragement Mr Khan is receiving, there is no doubting his popularity among the young urban middle classes (“the pious but unbearded”, as one academic puts it). Ijaz Gilani, of Gallup Pakistan, a pollster, attributes his success to even-greater-than-usual disillusionment with the two big parties, and the emergence over the past decade of a new class of educated professionals. Mr Khan’s appeal stems from the attractive simplicity of his message: end corruption and stop fighting the “American war”. He has managed to present himself as an “anti-politician”, different from the rest of the breed, which is widely seen as universally corrupt.
This makes for rousing rallies, but not necessarily electoral success. Pakistan has a first-past-the-post system which, as elsewhere, tends to favour two-party politics. And the PPP and PML(N) have deep roots. Both are family fiefs. The PPP is the party of the Bhuttos, from Sindh province; the “N” in PML(N) is for Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, who, with his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab province, lords it over the party. Their organisations and patronage networks provide strong defences against upstart parties and stack parliament with rich landowners who can deliver the votes of their clans and dependants.
Elections are never free of all fraud, but nor, these days, are they susceptible to massive rigging in favour of the “establishment” candidate. So most analysts think the PTI’s best hope in the election is to emerge as the third party and the power-broker in a coalition. Even to achieve that, however, it needs to attract defectors from other parties with their own local power bases. Two notable recruits are Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a former PPP foreign minister, and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, a PML(N) veteran. Mr Khan also enjoys some help from Jamaat-e-Islami, the biggest Islamist party, which, like the PTI, boycotted the 2008 election. And he has attracted some members of the PML(Q), the “king’s party” cobbled together in the early 2000s to give a civilian underpinning to the rule of Pervez Musharraf when he was still army chief.
This is problematic for Mr Khan. Mr Qureshi and Mr Hashmi have unusually clean reputations, but the same cannot be said of many established politicians. Enlisting the candidates who can win electoral seats risks tarnishing Mr Khan’s brand among his idealistic young core of supporters. It also provokes some resentment among longer-serving PTI stalwarts who stuck with Mr Khan when times were tough.
For now, however, he is profiting from the exceptionally toxic political atmosphere. The administration of Mr Zardari is widely viewed as hopelessly inept and irredeemably corrupt. And, predictably in a country that has seen three coups in its 64-year life, there are always rumours that its days are numbered.
The immediate deadline is March, when 50 of the 100 seats in the upper house of parliament, the Senate, are up for indirect election by the four provincial assemblies. The 2008 national and provincial elections were held not long after the assassination of the PPP’s leader, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and daughter of the party’s founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Her widower, Mr Zardari, is holding the party in trust for their young son, Bilawal. He became president after the PPP emerged from the general election as the largest party in parliament.
The PPP also made a good showing in the provincial assemblies, so it is poised to win control of the Senate in March (with its allies’ help). This matters not just for passing legislation, but also because the Senate, together with the elected lower house and four provincial assemblies, will form the electoral college for next year’s presidential election. Also, were the president to be incapacitated, the Senate’s chairman would take over until a new president is elected.
So the PPP’s opponents were keen to see its government fall before March. It has been under threat from three sides. The least significant of these was the political one. The PML(N), led by Mr Sharif, sought to take advantage of the government’s floundering. He would prefer elections before the PTI bandwagon gathers further momentum (the “pious unbearded” are also an important PML(N) constituency). But Mr Sharif, once seen as a creature of the army, has become an outspoken critic of its political ambitions, so he cannot expect its support for an early bid for power; and his ambitions depend on civilian government enduring.
The other potential sources of trouble for the government were more dangerous: the judiciary and the army. A lawyers’ movement was instrumental in bringing down Mr Musharraf, and the reinstated chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, seems to see the courts not so much as independent of the government as superior to it. The Supreme Court has been pursuing corruption allegations against Mr Zardari, having declared illegal an amnesty granted under Mr Musharraf.
It has also been investigating a scandal known as “Memogate”. This involves a document delivered by an American businessman of Pakistani origin, Mansoor Ijaz, to America’s former national security adviser to pass to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in May, just after the raid that killed bin Laden. It sought America’s help in reining in the army, humiliated by the bin Laden episode. Pakistan’s ambassador to America, Husain Haqqani, was alleged to have prompted and approved the memo and was forced to resign. The implication was that Mr Zardari himself had initiated the approach.
The government asked the court to drop the “non-issue”, but the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, insisted there was a case to answer, despite the oddity of accusing a head of state of treason against armed forces of which he is the titular commander. The impression was of a judiciary and army joining forces to topple the government, which certainly appeared to wobble.
Mr Zardari has never shaken off the allegations of corruption that in the past put him in jail twice for a total of 11 years. His government’s flailing response to catastrophic flooding in 2010, and his own decision to drop by his chateau in France at the height of the floods, further damaged his reputation. In December his response to criticism was not to defend his government’s record but to point to his dynastic lineage. Referring to himself as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “spiritual son”, he asked the nation “to have faith in the trust reposed by Benazir Bhutto in him”. Around that time a friend of his gave a dark warning that “the distance between Islamabad and Rawalpindi [the adjacent city housing the army’s headquarters] is growing.” The president and his prime minister hinted at conspiracies against democracy.
This year both legal threats have intensified. Of the two, Memogate seems likely to fade as a threat to the government. However, contempt of court proceedings have been initiated against Mr Gilani, because of the government’s failure to act on the Supreme Court’s instruction in 2009 to write to the Swiss authorities to seek the reopening of a money-laundering case against Mr Zardari. His government argues that the president enjoys constitutional immunity.
The confrontation ensures that the rest of its term will be haunted by constitutional and legal wrangling. But Mr Gilani has various avenues of appeal that can drag out the legal process. Meanwhile all parties seem close to a tacit understanding that there will be no coup. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January, Mr Gilani denied both that he was on bad terms with his generals and that democracy was under threat. But it seemed likely that the election would be called early, in October or November of this year. The probable outcome would be another fractured coalition.
Fourth time lucky?
That would probably suit the army quite well. Mismanagement of the economy is hitting it hard and it might welcome a regime of competent technocrats, but there is no obvious way of installing one. And indeed it is hard to see why the army would want to take power now. In the past few years it has successfully beaten off whatever challenges the Zardari government has thrown at it. In July 2008 the government announced that the ISI would be brought under civilian control, through the interior ministry. It retracted the idea within hours.
Having ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence, the generals know that even broadly popular seizures of power, such as the one that ousted Mr Sharif and installed General Musharraf in 1999, usually end with the army discredited. Having been far more effective than the civilian authorities in providing flood relief, the army, despite the humiliations of 2011, is now less unpopular than it was. So a coup seems unlikely, unless Mr Zardari tries to sack or otherwise meddle with the top brass, or the army is instructed to take unpopular pro-American actions, such as tolerating a big American operation against the Haqqani network. A complete rift with America would make the generals worry less about the international implications of unconstitutional action. They would be confident that China at least would not condemn them publicly; but China probably could not give them the money, technology and respectability that America provides.
The reason that a coup is talked about so often is not just that it has happened before. It is also that the army is still widely seen as the country’s most effective and disciplined organisation. Given its disastrous history, notably in the brutal war that led to the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, and its poor record in running the country when it has tried, this seems curious. Sadly, however, it is probably true—though civilian rulers have never really been given the chance to do better.