Imran Khan defies the odds to win the elections in Pakistan

24th Aug 2018
Imran Khan defies the odds to win the elections in Pakistan

(Photo: Stephan Rohl/ Creative Commons)

Musa Naqvi

Imran Khan, the iconic international cricketer-turned-politician and national hero, won Pakistan’s 2018 General Election and is set to become Prime Minister for the first time.

Khan ran an inspirational and youthful national campaign on the slogan of creating a ‘New Pakistan’ that was rid of its corruption and cronyism. In his charismatic Obama-esque addresses at massive pop-concert style political rallies across Pakistan, he promised to “bring change” and create a system that worked for the poorest.

The tensely fought election in which over 371,000 armed forces, police and security personnel were deployed across the country, saw Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) (or Pakistan Movement for Justice) emerge as the single largest party.

PTI took 116 of the 270 directly elected seats that were contested for the National Assembly. It fell 21 seats short of a simple majority. This was followed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) with 64 seats, with a much-revived Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by a young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari coming in third place, yet holding their ground with 43 Parliamentary seats.

PTI also scored a landslide victory in the provincial elections in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province where it ran the last provincial administration. It made huge gains in the major urban centres of Pakistan, such as the city port of Karachi and in major cities across the key Punjab province, in both the national and provincial assembly seats.

The election had a 51% turnout. Although 3% lower than the last time it saw over 54.15 million people vote. Yet, 51 million voters did not engage in the electoral process at all. In certain constituencies, women were barred from voting due to social pressures and coercion into not voting. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has since voided two electoral results as the female share of the vote in these constituencies was less than 10%.

Almost all losing parties, led by the PMLN came out rejecting the election outcome with accusations of widespread pre and post-poll rigging. The elections were observed by several teams of international observers, with the German MEP Michael Gahler leading an EU team.

The EU observers criticised the pre-election period as far from being free and fair, with a hostile environment for the incumbent party created due to the judiciary playing a political role, with restrictions on freedom of expression and widespread self-censorship across the media.

However, the international observers and election watchdogs noted that the electoral process of 2018 was more transparent, free and fair than the 2013 elections, dismissing technical failings due to inexperience. In Pakistan’s entire democratic history this will only be the second transition of power from one democratically elected government to the next after the completion of a full 5-year term.

Indeed, the lead up to these much-anticipated elections had been marred both by controversy and great tragedy. Several pending court cases against members of the incumbent PMLN were expedited with last minute judgements going against them, thus jailing them or banning them from standing. This limited participation, with many sitting MPs and ministers having their nomination papers rejected.

Three candidates were killed during the campaigning period in suicide and bomb attacks by Daesh, Taliban and its affiliated terror groups. This period of violence saw over 300 people killed. Elections had to be cancelled in the affected national and provincial constituencies. On the election day itself, a fourth suicide attack near a polling booth in the Western city of Quetta claimed a further 31 lives.

Controversially, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) cleared several extremist religious organisations and over 925 of their candidates to participate. These included: Ahmed Ludhianwi, the leader of the Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ), a reincarnation of the banned Sipha e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a terror group that has killed thousands of prominent Shia Muslims since the late 1980s. Hafiz Saeed the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a UN-designated terrorist organisation and the mastermind behind the 2011 Mumbai terror attacks was allowed to field candidates in over 265 constituencies nationally. Tahrik e Labbaik Ya RasulAllah (TLP), led by the firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, fielded over 200 candidates in its first ever election. TLP, a party fuelled on anti-Ahmadi sentiment, made the defence of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws as its one-point agenda for the election campaign.

The polls saw an electoral decimation and rejection of all these extremist religious parties and groups. Hafiz Saeed’s party lost in all the seats, whereas the TLP and ASWJ candidates won just 1 seat each in the provincial elections. Though worryingly TLP took over 2.2million votes and 4.22% of the national vote share.

Khan has firmly ruled out any coalition with the PPP. The days since the election have seen PTI leaders negotiating with the smaller parties and independent candidates in an effort to ensure the correct parliamentary arithmetic for the formation of a national coalition government and a tricky provincial government in Punjab.

Despite, what might seem a weak coalition, Khan’s victory marks a dramatic shift in Pakistan’s shaky democracy and is the culmination of his 22-year struggle in overturning Pakistan’s dynastic and feudal politics.

Khan launched his party in April 1996, winning his first seat 6 years later in the 2002 general election under General Pervaiz Musharraf. His party boycotted the 2008 elections held under a military-imposed state of emergency, fearing that elections would neither be free nor fair.

It was in fact in 2013 that PTI emerged as a national political force after winning 7.6million votes and 35 seats in the National assembly, as well as landing the provincial government of the restive northern western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.

2013 was the first time Khan and his party were given a chance to govern. KPK government under PTI saw improvements in the local police force, lower crime rates, several developmental project and environmental initiatives, as well as projects to tackle poverty and proper investment in traditional madrasahs to de-radicalise extremists. Khan’s policy was to engage with the Taliban and the Haqqanis through dialogue and education, a policy that met with much criticism.

The last 5 years have seen Khan’s party became a party of protest. In 2013 following the elections it took to the street in protest, amid allegations of poll rigging and corruption. In 2016 after the leak of the Panama Papers, which implicated the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of wide-scale corruption and concealment of assets worth millions through offshore companies, Khan’s protest movement brought Islamabad to a standstill. Legal action resulted in Nawaz’s eventual disqualification and a 10-year imprisonment, a judgement which came a few days before this election.

Khan first started off his parliamentary career in 2002, with just one Parliamentary seat. Yet now remarkably this election has seen him win from all 5 constituencies where he personally stood. His star-power and motivational style of campaigning has overawed all opposition.

In his extempore victory speech, delivered a day after the election, Khan laid out his domestic and international agenda, vowing to fight corruption, improve governance and accountability, to tackle the economic crisis and promising to build Pakistan into an “humanitarian state” which took responsibility for the weak and the poor.

Khan’s immediate policy focus will be to negotiate a bailout for Pakistan’s struggling economy and to address issues of macro-instability. His government has inherited a massive fiscal and trade deficit. His party hasn’t ruled out yet another IMF loan as a financing option.

In his victory speech, Khan stated his desire to work for the poorest people by making Pakistan an ‘Islamic Welfare State’. He spoke of a need to provide better health and education, with policies that benefited the masses, especially the poorest farmers in Pakistan’s mainly agrarian economy. Khan has also indicated that he wanted to tackle the issue of unemployment for Pakistan’s rapidly growing young population. During his campaign, he had promised the creation of 10 million new jobs with academic and vocational opportunities for the youth. Yet, all these promises require significant investment and financing, with potentially difficult budgetary negotiations with the Army.

The PTI administration will be seeking to increase tax revenues, by tackling corruption and fraud, with the hope that this builds the public’s confidence in their government and reduces tax evasion. The pursuit of stolen Pakistani assets that have been squirrelled away overseas by corrupt politicians will provide another welcome source of income. Khan suggested that a possibility of using notable public buildings as luxury hotels for much-needed revenue, as his party’s previous provincial government has demonstrated in KPK. Cuts in massive ministerial expenses and perks, starting with the Prime Minister’s own household, as well as the entire cabinet not taking a salary have been some of the gestures that Khan has made in demonstrating his seriousness in addressing the issues of inequality and poverty.

On foreign policy, he called for an improvement in relations between Pakistan and its immediate neighbours Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, also stressing upon Pakistan’s role as an important mediator in improving Iran-Saudi relations, and creating a mutually beneficial relationship with the US.

In Pakistan’s 71-year history, the political landscape has long been dominated by the corrupt super-rich industrialists and feudal lords, with significant interference from the all-powerful military forces. Khan’s success, his plans for a radical shakeup and his promises to crack-down on corruption are a breath of fresh air for a nation suffocated by an old-order of a corrupt civil-military apparatus.

His words have given hope to a people long starved of credible and competent leadership, but it remains to be seen what PTI can deliver at a national level.

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