One year ago, I wrote a piece asserting that Imran Khan was peaking too soon.

I argued in part that the PTI’s electability is exaggerated because most of its support lies in cities, which contain only a third of Pakistan’s population. In several decades, when a majority of Pakistanis are living in cities, the story could be different. But not now.

Predictably, I was pilloried by Khan’s feisty followers. “Give us a break,” one of them wrote to me. “Imran Khan shall Insha Allah rise, and no anti-Imran propaganda would work.”

Alas, based on events of the last few weeks, it may be more accurate to say that Khan’s star has already risen — and is now in danger of falling.

One can’t deny his popularity, as evidenced by those monster jalsa turnouts in Lahore and Karachi, and by the polls that find the PTI to be Pakistan’s most popular political party. Khan is a hero to young, urban-based, middle-class, conservative Pakistanis — a rapidly growing demographic much more representative of Pakistan than the small cosmopolitan elite most familiar to Washington.

Khan’s popularity actually extends beyond urban Pakistan — to the Beltway and Big Apple. I’ve met numerous Khan aficionados within the US-based Pakistan Diaspora, including angry yet articulate students who pepper me with probing questions when I make presentations on university campuses. If Khan were to give a public talk in Washington, he’d attract hundreds of Pakistani Americans — and not just because of his celebrity status (incidentally, Pervez Musharraf, far from Mr. Popularity and dismissed by many as a has-been, drew an audience of 400 at a Wilson Center lecture in 2011).

But let’s consider what’s happened of late. Where has Khan gone? He’s been relatively quiet, and especially since his anti-drones peace caravan. He continues to score some media interviews, though mainly in Western outlets. The only major headlines he has generated of late came from his unpleasant encounter with US customs officials during a visit to Canada.

Has Khan decided to lay low for a while because of the death threat he received from the Taliban this summer? I seriously doubt it; Khan isn’t the type to cower in the face of such threats (when I met him several years ago, it was clear that he exudes strength — from his large frame and booming voice to supreme confidence).

More likely, he’s taking some time out to rethink his problematic political strategy and platform.

After all, while he has attracted some big names to the PTI (think Asad Umar and Shah Mahmood Qureshi), the party has suffered some recent defections (think Shireen Mazari). Additionally, anti-Khan commentary has been especially vociferous of late, as exemplified by a devastating takedown on

Some of the criticism he’s receiving is misplaced. Sure, ending corruption in 90 days is outlandishly idealistic. But let’s face it: No politician campaigns on substance; he or she campaigns on sound bytes and rhetoric (I dare anyone to uncover one second of substance from the just-concluded $6 billion US presidential campaign).

It is Khan’s views about militancy — and how to address it — that deserve criticism. The Malala tragedy crystallises the absurdity (and danger) of his seemingly conciliatory position toward the sickeningly brutal TTP. Pakistan’s overwhelming, broad-based public condemnation of the TTP after its attack on the young schoolgirl — a far cry from the responses to the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti or, for that matter, to any sectarian killing — suggests that Khan’s position is sorely at odds with public opinion.

However, it’s the Pakistani political system — the very institution he vows to radically reform — that most threatens his quest for political power. It is a patronage-driven machine that offers practically no electoral victory hopes for political parties not named PPP or PML.

The PPP may be unpopular, but I can’t imagine one of its leaders not becoming the next prime minister. Certainly the PTI will win seats in next year’s election, but not enough to form a government (unless, of course, the security establishment helps propel Khan to power — a prediction heard less often now than earlier this year, at least here in Washington).

This is why it’s wrong to compare Khan to Barack Obama, as some observers have done. Sure, they’re both candidates of hope. But Obama belongs to one of his country’s established political parties; Khan does not. A more appropriate American equivalent to Khan would be Ralph Nader — an incorruptible third-party politician with strident views and young, fervent supporters. Yet he has never come close to winning an election.

Before the PTI trolls release their venom on me, let’s be clear: Khan could well become prime minister one day. Urbanisation threatens the rural-based bastions of the PML-N and PPP, and an opening could eventually emerge for ascendant parties like the PTI.

But that’s a discussion for another day.


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



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