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Imran Khan: The least bad option?


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These are, to paraphrase an American independence hero, the times that try Pakistani souls.

Yes, the May election marks a democratic milestone. But let’s not be fooled. The nation remains mired in a deep — and arguably unprecedented — crisis.

This begs a question that many — from cynical Pakistani intellectuals to dismissive Washington analysts — are unwilling to ask: Given the depths of Pakistan’s troubles (a colleague recently described it as “a train wreck in slow motion”), and given the colossal leadership failures of recent years, would a Prime Minister Imran Khan really be such a bad thing?

Admittedly, we’re likely talking about pure hypotheticals; the odds are against Khan assuming power. But as a supremely popular cricket hero-turned-politician, he’s well worth discussing.

For voters, Khan is the quintessential high-risk investment. Because neither he, nor his party has ever led a government, his candidacy is fraught with uncertainty. If he were to take power, the returns could be intoxicatingly high — or dangerously low.

On the one hand, Khan and the PTI embody what Pakistan needs most: Hope. And not just in the abstract sense. The PTI’s internal party elections suggest a commitment to strengthening democracy in a country where the institution remains fragile. The party’s clean reputation brings credibility to its intention to root out corruption. Its release of a social media code of conduct legitimises its desire to introduce more civility. And its announcement of a manifesto for the disabled demonstrates its determination to bring more inclusivity to a nation long defined by exclusion and division.

Additionally, Khan’s repeated condemnations of sectarian violence are striking; he says what most politicians simply don’t say (“I tell you by name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi … there can be no bigger enemy of Islam than you”). Such denunciations give hope that he would tackle one of Pakistan’s chief security threats.

On the other hand, Khan’s lack of experience in government could translate to disastrous policy decisions — when the nation cannot afford any more of them. His constant tendency to blame America and the West for Pakistan’s ills raises the possibility of yet another leader who shirks responsibility and outsources blame. His perplexing position on militancy — he denounces the country’s “strategic assets” (such as LeJ) while extending olive branches to rabidly anti-state extremists (such as TTP) — telegraphs a reluctance to unequivocally confront such a deadly scourge. And news of an electoral alliance with the hardline JI raises red flags galore.

In other words, we don’t know what to expect. Khan could defy vested interests, and introduce tax reforms and reorient the national budget toward the social sector. He could galvanise his supporters from the young, urban middle class — a critical long-term demographic — and position the country to reap a long-elusive demographic dividend.

Or, he could try to do these things and fail miserably. He could discard his populist campaign rhetoric, sell out, and succumb to the system and its vested interests. One of his most misguided insinuations — when America leaves the region, Pakistan’s security situation will magically improve — could infect policymaking and allow a dangerous complacency to take root.

These are both terrific and terrifying returns — and we don’t know which type would materialise.

Yet, here’s a question. Would even the most dreadful of returns be any worse than the consequences of another PPP-led or, more likely, a PML-N-led government?

The latter scenario is admittedly low-risk: The consequences won’t be pretty, but you basically know what you’re getting — much of the same as before. Understandably, many are OK with this option. After all, given Pakistan’s perilous plight, why embrace more risk? Why jeopardise the relative comfort of “muddling along”?

But consider the likely consequences. Unless pessimism has taken my reasoning hostage, we can assume neither the PPP nor PML-N will muster the will to implement critical reforms — or to take bolder steps against militancy. These are dynastic parties locked in a tight embrace with vested interests. They represent entrenched feudal and agricultural interests, and defer to entrenched military and religious interests — most of which staunchly resist change.

In effect, we’d witness the jealous guarding of an increasingly untenable status quo.

This isn’t an appealing prospect. Unless, that is, the returns from a PTI government are so disastrous that they accelerate Pakistan’s seemingly inevitable downward spiral — a spiral that previous governments, up to now (thanks to Pakistanis’ resourcefulness), have kept at bay.

Ultimately, these are all unknowns. But this we know: the contrast between the established parties and the PTI is sharp. One day after bickering PPP and PML-N officials failed to select a caretaker prime minister, the PTI mobilised at least 150,000 people at a hope-infused rally.

So would a Prime Minister Khan be such a bad thing? There’s no way of knowing. But would it be the worst bad thing? Call me naive, but I’m inclined to say: Not necessarily.


The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

sana Mar 28, 2013 09:03am
what more bad will happen.. we have seen Imran khan ..he has proved him self ,our cricket is no exception to corruption... and his period was the best in the cricket history of Pakistan... Imran please play an other dignified match against corrupt Pakistanis!! this is more difficult...
M. Tanseer Ali Mar 28, 2013 09:05am
Totally agreed, Its not right time for worst ever and used shells. Pakistan needs new people and hope. Moral of nation is deficient and PML-N is unable to build it.
observer Mar 28, 2013 09:10am
Imran Khan is a big no, no. For his own, personal ego and longing for absolute power, he is playing a dangerous game of discrediting everything and everyone but his own party. This is not how change is brought. Anna Hazare is a better agent of change than Imran Khan. What Pakistan needs more is a figure who would push the ruling class to behave and work for the people of Pakistan instead of working for themselves. But in Pakistan whoever gains some popularity wants to be the Prime Minister. Another example is Dr. A. Q. Khan. Everyone has their own political party. What a joke.
nazir Minto Mar 28, 2013 09:12am
Imran Khan , is the ONLY leader , who has any relevance, to what this Country requires, and that is .........Change ! !
Zero Hero Mar 28, 2013 09:12am
Let us give him a try. He does fill in most of the boxes with a tick. As regards TTP, well maybe he has some plans on how to tame a wayward and erratic bowler needing some advice in the nets not to swing the ball too much but keep it at a good length and straight. Attack the stumps and not the helmet.
MIr Mar 28, 2013 09:13am
I beg the people of Pakistan to vote for PTI, please for God's sake. Also I request ECP to give the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis. Finally I would like to say that May Allah Subhanahu wa Ta'ala give Imran Khan a long, happy and healthy life and give him a chance, guidance, and strength to fulfill all his promises to the nation, Aameen.
AA Mar 28, 2013 09:16am
Anyone who is comfortable with PML(N) and PPP's way of governance and not willing to take the "risk" is definitely living in a fool's paradise. "Least bad option" Really? I think it should be "Thank God we have a good option for the first time in decades".
Pakistani looking for a better tommorrow Mar 28, 2013 09:18am of integrity and courage.....true the kinda person Pakistan desperately needs in the current situation......Thus Imran Khan is the only hope for Pakistan.....and its so very obvious.....I hope People of Pakistan realize this and vote for PTI and Imran Khan this time around.....He is the only hope
Imran Mar 28, 2013 09:25am
Imdaguy Mar 28, 2013 09:29am
Totally agree with you! Khan is worth a try!
roarwali Mar 28, 2013 09:31am
Intersting blog but i don't agree with one point that there involves a high risk if IK is elected bc he has no experience. Let me ask you one question: Whether Raja Ashraf; Gilani or more othere are experienced people. big no. Secondly, Imran is not the only person in the party who will take decisions independently. He is surrounded by most experienced, educated and motivated people in the party. Whenever he plans a policy shift, those people will have definitly a say in the policymaking process... En bref, I am sure that with PTI governement, Pakistan will not be at risk.
Zak Mar 28, 2013 09:36am
100% agreement with Mr Kugelman. HIgh risk, high returns.
UmerSid Mar 28, 2013 09:38am
Yes you are naive. I said it so bluntly because people in pakistan need to get out of the dream we have been living that some HERO will come and save us. We think the politicians and the corrupt system is the root cuase of failure but the truth is from the peon of a organinzation to its GM all are corrupt we can not see beyond our own personal interests. We think that creation of pakistan was a miracle and Allah has blessed us with the land for Muslims to practice Islam. While realtiy is completely different. We must not forget that Miss Jinnah lost the election soon after pakistans creation. Politicians and the system is not the problem we are the problem. You can gather the best politicians from around the world but this country will still be the same.
Aizaz Moin Mar 28, 2013 09:48am
I would tend to agree with Michael. Given Pakistan's history ofcontinually "shooting itself in the foot" The odds cannot be much worse. At the very least Khan has proven himself time and again that he is a passionate Pakistani and THAT is what Pakistan must now bank on. The country has had far too many self-interested and so called "leaders".
Eddie Mar 28, 2013 10:01am
I think Khan's anti US war slogans are purely political. In a country where 92% of people disapprove of US leadership and 55% of them fear harm in greater interaction between Muslim and western societies, I think It is not at a bad idea at all to raise such slogans to gain popularity among masses. Khan is quite aware of the bitter reality that we can never get out of this war without getting our hands dirty.
Ashfaq Mar 28, 2013 10:09am
Spot on with the cnclusion. There is no doubt that the society needs a bit of evolution with PTI opening up this possibility. While PPP and PML(N) as you correctly point, are stuck in culture that is counter productive.