by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 3, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1433)
Imran Khan, cricket-star-turned-social worker-turned politician, is riding high in public opinion polls in Pakistan.
His rallies in several cities have been hugely successful easily dwarfing similar rallies by other politicians. Following his successful rally in Lahore last October, politicians made a beeline to join his party — the Tehrik-e Insaaf Pakistan (Pakistan Justice Movement) — in hopes of cashing in on his popularity to ride to power.
Since opening its doors in December 1994, the hospital has provided free treatment to about 65–70% of the patients who are too poor to afford the services, as promised during his fund-raising drive.
Since establishing his party in 1996, Imran Khan has struggled hard to make his mark on Pakistani politics. He stands out from other politicians in several ways. It was under his leadership as captain of the cricket team that Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992. It was the first and last time that the Pakistani cricket team achieved such a feat. He retired from cricket and turned his energy to building the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore (named after his mother who died of cancer), the first of its kind in Pakistan. He collected funds from the people as well as donated his own money, again a first in Pakistan where politicians have their snouts permanently lodged in the public trough. Since opening its doors in December 1994, the hospital has provided free treatment to about 65–70% of the patients who are too poor to afford the services, as promised during his fund-raising drive.
In recent years, Imran Khan has opened the first public university—Namal University — in Mianwali, his ancestral hometown. Namal is linked to Bradford University in England. Imran Khan is Chancellor of Bradford University and he has made arrangements so that Bradford would award degrees to Namal graduates.
His political career meanwhile has gone through its usual twists and turns. He has taken strong and forthright positions on major issues. He has made corruption a major issue of political discourse in Pakistan and demanded that all those desirous of seeking public office should declare their assets and how much tax they pay. For the record, Nawaz Sharif, the billionaire former prime minister, paid only Rs. 6,000 in taxes last year. Asif Ali Zardari, the accidental president of Pakistan, is a notorious crook. Together with his thieving wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, they sucked Pakistan dry. Numerous cases were lodged against the pair that were dropped under a scandalous deal brokered by the British and the Americans to allow Benazir to return to Pakistan. Under the deal, the military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, was to stay on as president while Benazir would become prime minister. She was killed on December 27, 2007, thereby paving the way for Zardari to become president while Musharraf’s fate was sealed. He was forced to resign in August 2008.
The question that must be asked is whether he can win enough seats in the next election to form the government.
Because of his popularity with the public — as cricket star and with a reputation for honesty and hard work — Imran Khan has been offered ministerial positions several times including by Musharraf and General Zia ul-Haque just before his mysterious plane crash in August 1988. Other politicians would have jumped at the opportunity; Imran rejected all these offers. This has also enhanced his popularity with the public.
The question that must be asked is whether he can win enough seats in the next election to form the government. If one goes by the attendance at his rallies in different parts of the country, including the interior of Sindh, one would conclude that the answer is in the affirmative but Pakistani politics are not determined by public participation in rallies. In Pakistan, politics are a money game; this is also the case in most other countries that claim to be democracies. The US is a good example. It has been dubbed the best democracy money can buy. This is even more so in the case of Pakistan.
Public participation in elections is already extremely low in Pakistan; voter turnout seldom surpasses 25–30%. The masses have been misled so many times that they have lost faith in the politicians and their tall promises. Besides, there are numerous flaws in the voting process. Voters’ lists are not up to date. Millions of ghost voters exist on electoral rolls; millions of others are not registered. Election officers are open to bribes and manipulation. Politicians with connections are able to stuff ballot boxes. Strong-arm tactics are frequently employed. Almost every political party has its armed thugs to intimidate opponents as well as election officials. During senate elections in February, Waheeda Shah, a female candidate from the ruling People’s Party, publicly slapped a female election officer that was caught on camera. The assailant, Waheeda Shah, has not been charged or reprimanded nor the poor victim compensated in any way. In every election, scores of people are killed, shot by armed thugs of the rival party at polling booths.
Two other processes are at work. First, in the rural areas, many poor people have little choice but to vote for the feudal lord or his nominee. The rural masses are treated as little more than serfs. Neither their life nor honor is safe at the hands of these predatory feudal lords. The day after the election, they have to face the wrath of the master if they dare vote against him. The feudals also use state machinery, such as the police and the bureaucracy, to punish people that refuse to toe their line. The Bhuttos and Zardaris of Sindh, the tribal sardars of Baluchistan and the Chaudhries of Punjab are elected based on their feudal power and threats. The same holds true for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party of gangsters and thugs, in Karachi and a few other cities of Sindh.
Then there is the involvement of money. Elections are an enormously expensive undertaking in Pakistan. Many voters are bribed to vote for a particular candidate. Voters also look not for an honest candidate but one who can save them from the heavy-handedness of the police and state bureaucracy or help their son or nephew get a job. Honest politicians are usually not very helpful, as far as the people are concerned. Politicians that spend huge sums to get “elected” must recover it once in power. That is where plundering of state resources begins.
Given this state of affairs, does Imran Khan’s party have the wherewithal to compete in the shark-infested waters of Pakistani politics? Does he have enough party cadres that can transport voters to the polling stations and run the gauntlet of armed thugs of other parties on election day? Does he have enough resources to feed the people? This is how elections are conducted in Pakistan.
Imran Khan may be honest and perhaps the best candidate with all the right credentials, but if he does not have the political muscle to fight fire with fire, the chances of his success do not look very good. He cannot be faulted for trying but unless the swamp is cleaned, the most he may end up with is get his hands and clothes dirty by jumping into it.
Pakistan needs a revolution, not another election, to solve its problems. Unless the swamp is drained and all the blood sucking parasites eliminated, there will be no peace for the people or any hope of progress for Pakistan.