IMRAN Khan says he had a dream that his party had swept the upcoming elections. He believes that like in the past this time too his dream will come true.
After languishing on the margins for almost 16 years, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has now taken centre stage in Pakistani power politics, challenging the two established parties. But will Imran’s dream of sweeping the elections come true? Maybe not yet.
Certainly, the PTI has gained momentum, especially with the growing sense of despair among the new generation of Pakistanis. A British Council survey shows that an overwhelming percentage of the country’s young population has little faith in the future of the country and democracy.
This defining trait of young voters who number 25 million, or 30 per cent of the registered voters, will present a major challenge for the political parties at the hustings.
Despite their scepticism about democracy, the majority of youth intend to vote and could hugely influence the upcoming elections. With all their frustration, the young generation could become an instrument for change.
It is certainly not a monolithic group with affiliation to a particular ideology or political party. But what is common to them all is the rejection of the existing state of affairs. Pakistan has never been so ripe for change as it is now. Disillusionment with the ruling parties comes out quite clearly in various public opinion polls and surveys.
Therefore it does not come as a surprise that many among the new generation of voters peg their hopes on Imran Khan and his party. He is the only political leader who from the very outset of his campaign has focused on the youth.
His supporters are largely made up of young and first-time voters frustrated by the worsening security situation, the deteriorating economy and an uncertain future. They are desperate to see a party in power that promises them a better future.
Imran Khan’s decision to allocate 30pc of party tickets to young and first-time candidates has certainly helped consolidate the PTI’s youth support base. But this following seems to be restricted to the urban middle classes. The party holds little appeal for the rural poor who form the majority of the youth bulge.
There is also a question of whether Imran Khan’s charisma and his ability to attract big crowds could sweep away the traditional power base of the more established political parties particularly in Punjab. The country’s most powerful province will be the major battleground in the upcoming elections.
Though Imran Khan’s slogans of “a new Pakistan” and “change we can bring” may have inspired the dissatisfied urban educated youth, they have not generated the kind of powerful mass effect needed to break the domination of the traditional power elite. Moreover, his message is confused and often contradictory offering little to the common people.
Slogans are an important part of political campaigns across the world. They may or may not win elections, but they certainly play a critical role in mobilising public support. The slogan of “roti, kapra aur makan” (food, clothing and shelter) raised by ZulfikarAli Bhutto helped motivate the masses to vote for his Pakistan Peoples Party in 1970.
The three words encapsulated his party’s social democratic agenda and caught the imagination of the poor and downtrodden. Bhutto’s biggest support, however, came from the intelligentsia and the youth. The PPP’s victory in the first-ever direct elections in Pakistan’s history was aptly described as a “revolution through ballot”, though it went sour after the party’s rise to power.
Since then no other political party in Pakistan has campaigned with such a powerful message of change. True, it may not be the 1960s or the 1970s, a period of ideological confrontation when politics was highly polarised between the left and the right and between liberalism and religious obscurantism. But the social, political and ideological conflict Pakistani society faces is much more intense today.
Pakistan is a country deeply mired in economic crisis with more than one-third of the population living below the poverty line. Even after six decades of its birth the country is searching for an identity. There is a raging battle of ideas to determine what kind of state Pakistan should be — a moderate Muslim state or a centre for international terrorism.
Imran Khan’s slogan for a new Pakistan is more of an illusion rather than a vision for change. There is no clear vision behind the ambiguous slogan of a “new Pakistan”. It is more of rhetoric about corruption and the misdeeds of the PPP and PML-N. There is nothing about how his party is going to deal with issues like terrorism and extremism, which present the biggest threat to the country’s existence.
Unlike Mr Bhutto’s PPP, the PTI does not have any intellectual capital to give the party a clear direction. It is almost 18 years since the PTI was founded without any ideological moorings. Notwithstanding its slogan of change, the influence of right-wing conservative elements, many of them former members of the Jamaat-i-Islami, appears quite strong on party policies.
While he promises to fight against the status quo parties, Imran Khan’s hobnobbing with right-wing groups is incomprehensible. The PTI is in negotiations on seat arrangements with the JI and some other Islamic groups which raises questions about his concept of a new Pakistan.
Imran is not clear on which side of history he would like to stand. His ambivalent stance on militancy and extremism does not offer much hope about his concept of a new Pakistan and there are many issues on which he stands on the wrong side of history. Still, the PTI may emerge as a major power bloc in the upcoming elections. But Imran Khan’s dream of his party coming to power may not be fulfilled at least this time.
The writer is an author and journalist.