Imran Khan’s rise

Published February 22, 2024
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
The writer is a business and economy journalist.

THERE is no denying that a powerful wave of popular support is surging behind Imran Khan today. There is no sense, and no sanity, in denying this.

All predictions that the sun will soon set on Khan once he is removed from power are proving wrong. Just as things begin to look bad for him, something comes along to recharge his strength.

That something is always the same: an appeal to the people. Following the vote of no-confidence in April 2022, for example, Khan announced a long march to Islamabad in May. That long march fai­led to garner sufficient numbers to accomplish anything special. Khan called it off abruptly after reaching Islamabad and went off to Banigala instead.

There was a sense that the politics of agitation that had served him so well during the period of his rise after the so-called tsunami march in August 2014 was no longer going to work, because he no longer had the support of the establishment that was a crucial ingredient in the success of the earlier wave of agitation politics. Instead, Khan fell back on rallies, large numbers of them, and attracted large crowds whom he showered with fiery rhetoric of betrayal and pride.

But then came the by-elections on 20 seats that the PTI had themselves resigned from, and Khan won 15 of them. That jolt was the first sign that something big was stirring beneath the surface. Some tried to play this down. The victory was due to a stunt, they said, when Khan fielded himself as the candidate on all seats.

Others said he had only won back seats that were his own to start off with. Yet others said anti-incumbent sentiment played a role, because the PDM government of Shehbaz Sharif had just completed a painful series of adjustments in fuel and power prices that had spurred inflation and eaten into people’s purchasing power.

There is no sense in trying to minimise the fact that Imran Khan has established a powerful connection with the electorate.

But then came another 11 by-elections in October in which Khan again fielded himself as the candidate on seven seats and won six of them. The PPP privately made a big deal out of the one seat which Khan lost to their candidate — Malir in Karachi. But the larger picture was gaining clarity: whenever Khan went to the people, he returned with his powers recharged.

Discerning this, Khan played a bigger stroke: he dissolved the Punjab and KP assemblies in January 2023, hoping to push a large number of by-elections in both provinces as required by the Constitution. But sensing that holding these elections would only increase his strength further, the PDM government prevaricated and ultimately succeeded in stymieing those elections for more than one year.

The elections of Feb 8, 2024, were the next mo­­m­­ent afforded to Khan to approach the people, and this time every effort was made to suppress his appeal. He was in jail, his party had no symbol, his activists were arrested, a large number of party leaders were forced to leave politics or join some other party, and his candidates were not able to hold corner meetings, let alone large rallies.

The eventual result was marred by widespread, and credible, allegations of rigging, sometimes in numbers so large as to sway an entire constituency away from Khan’s candidate towards the opponent.

And still his candidates carried just under one-third of the total votes cast, the single-largest vote block of them all. By seat share, their showing was even larger, because their voter mobilisation strategy was superior to that of other parties.

There is now no sense in denying or trying to minimise the fact that Imran Khan has established a powerful connection with the electorate. The more they try to keep him down, the stronger this connection gets and wins him ever more adherents.

All sorts of theories are now being floated about what the main driver of this connection really is. Some say it is an anti-establishment vote. Others say a protracted period, lasting more than 20 months, of record high inflation, is what is driving people to flock to his appeal. Yet another theory said it is not love for Khan, but dislike (or even hate) for Nawaz Sharif that lies behind this growing appeal.

We can read all sorts of messages into this powerful appeal, but we cannot wish it away. Khan has succeeded beyond even his own wildest imagination. It is critical now to examine the deeper, underlying drivers of this stupendous political story. A failing economy and a changing demography are two places to look.

Pakistan’s economy is faced with critical choices that require decisive leadership. For one, a high-energy-cost environment is now permanently upon us as imported LNG increasingly replaces dwindling stocks of domestic gas. Second, a dangerously high debt burden means business as usual cannot continue. Pakistan must adapt to both realities simultaneously: transition out of energy-intensive manufacturing, and learn to rely on domestic resources to fuel growth rather than foreign borrowing.

Failing to make these transitions means high inflation and high unemployment at precisely the moment when the country is absorbing a youth bulge, with more than two million new entrants joining the workforce every year.

These are all young people. For them, 9/11 happened before they were born. And increasingly, these young people are filling our voter rolls. More than 22m new voters were added to the electorate in 2024 compared to 2018, a record-high increase, although it is not clear how many of these were young people.

Pakistan is changing. In the economic realm, the old manufacturing bases are being rendered obsolete as energy costs adjust sharply upward with every passing year.

And in the political realm, the patronage machines that sustained the old political parties are finding the ground shifting beneath their feet, as more and more first-time voters enter the rolls. Those who adapt to the changes will survive. Those who do not, will go down kicking and screaming.

The writer is a business and economy journalist.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

X: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2024

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