LAHORE: Nearing the end of his frenetic, barnstorming tour of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Imran Khan is confident of a clear victory on May 11 but is still unwilling to predict the number of seats the PTI will win.
His voice flushed with excitement after a whistle-stop of the Peshawar valley and parts of central Punjab over the past 36 hours, Khan believes the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is on the verge of a historic success.
“I’m not going to get drawn into numbers. But if it’s going like I think it is, then we should have a clear majority,” Khan says of Saturday’s National Assembly elections in an interview with Dawn.
What if the PTI doesn’t win a majority on May 11: would it sit in the opposition or negotiate to join a coalition government or, as a rumour swirling around the PTI suggests, would the party refuse to accept the results as legitimate?
“If it’s the main parties, then no,” Khan says, referring to the possibility of a coalition with either the PML-N or the PPP.
“The others, the other parties that we can think about it if the situation arises,” the PTI chief continues, simultaneously implicitly recognising the difficulty of attaining a single-party majority and rejecting the possibility of launching a protest movement.
Khan’s effervescence in the last days of the campaign is, by his own admission, because of the ferocious effort over the past two weeks to reach out to the electorate; an effort that Khan believes has re-energised the untested PTI voter and support base.
“People said that the tsunami had receded, that the support had gone. But when we went out again, we got the response and support again,” Khan claims.
Helping Khan re-energise the PTI base is a sophisticated campaign machinery that has been built around him and that travels with him, quickly deployed in the run-up to his short campaign stops before hurriedly moving on to the next location.
The most obvious element in the campaign machine is the small, four-person helicopter that ferries Khan and his closest advisers from one stop to the next, stretching his itinerary to the maximum.
On his whirlwind, daylong tour of the Peshawar valley on Saturday, for example, Khan visited Buner, Swabi, Charsadda, Mardan, Nowshera and Peshawar before flying to Lahore in a private plane later that evening.
At the rallies themselves, significant attention is paid to crowd-rousing techniques before Khan’s arrival and during his stump speech. In Mardan, massive audio equipment was set up to pump quality sound across the venue adjacent to railway tracks: first for the now-familiar PTI anthems and then for broadcasting Khan’s words.
In Peshawar, where Khan is contesting NA-1, as hundreds waited hours for the PTI chief to arrive to inaugurate a running mate’s campaign office, the crowd-pleasing tricks were slowly rolled out. With the star attraction’s arrival imminent, a giant bat was carried into the narrow lane followed by a campaign van laden with speakers to entertain the crowd.
The least organised aspect of Khan’s rallies appears to be security, with Khan himself often breaking protocol and clearly revelling in being mobbed by supporters. In Mardan, as Khan was ushered off stage and towards his bulletproof SUV, he stopped to give an interview to a BBC team and was instantly mobbed by supporters chasing after him.
Later, in Peshawar, when his SUV was unable to enter a narrow lane leading to his running mate’s office, Khan opened the front passenger door, stood up and raised a clenched fist to the gathered crowd. In those few seconds, the already frenzied throng went delirious as supporters clambered over one another to try and touch Khan.
Resurgence Did Khan always believe there would be a late surge in the PTI’s popularity, rendering the overall election result unpredictable?
“I saw it for the first time in June 2010. This was much before the October rally. At the Union Council-level, the support for us was incredible,” Khan says, dating his belief in the PTI’s popularity to a by-election for a Punjab Assembly seat in Lahore.
After the Feb 2008 winner of PP-160, Lahore-XIV, was disqualified because of a fake graduation degree, a by-election was held on June 24, 2010, which the PML-N won with 27,000 votes.
Runner-up was the PTI’s Malik Zaheer Abbas Khokhar, who clocked in 19,000 votes in an election that the Free and Fair Election Network reported as marred by fraudulent voting and interference by the district administration.
“I knew then,” Khan says of the 2010 Lahore by-election. “That was an election in which the entire provincial government was against us and yet the support for us was there. The people were with us.”
“The toughest decision of my life was holding the intra-party elections,” Khan says of the dip in the PTI’s popularity after the now-famous Lahore rally in October 2011. “After the Lahore rally, as we went through the process, people started to say that the tsunami had receded.”
“It was tough but I wanted to break this system of candidates, sometimes going to one party, sometimes going to another, this system of money and development funds,” Khan continues. “Now that we’ve been through the intra-party elections and the board has selected candidates, the candidates belong to us, to the PTI.”
Determined to keep the focus on the PTI, and by extension himself, instead of on electables and constituency candidates, Khan believes he has found a winning strategy.
“Lahore is where the main battle is. But it’s all over Punjab, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The PPP is crumbling in south Punjab. The old order is collapsing,” Khan exclaims enthusiastically.
Cautious PTI For all of Khan’s enthusiasm and self- belief, members of the PTI leadership and party candidates privately admit that the PTI is beset by lingering but serious problems.
In Mardan, for example, Khan’s rally was thinly attended and of the three National Assembly constituencies in the district, none has a PTI candidate as the leading contender or even as a serious challenger. The reason, party members claim, the ticket-allocation process that sidelined potentially stronger candidates.
“Until a month ago, the PTI stronghold was supposed to be KP. But now it’s Punjab and there’s nothing in KP,” a PTI leader in KP claimed, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party matters. “It’s primarily down to mismanagement.”
According to the PTI leader, the bitter rivalry between Pervez Khattak, the party’s central secretary general, and Asad Qaiser, the party’s KP president, has already cost the party because of the tussle over tickets, mixed signals sent to the electorate and shoddy overall campaign infrastructure.
“Five seats look strong,” the PTI leaders said of the 35 National Assembly races in KP. “The rest there’s not much. PTI should do better at the provincial assembly level.”A PTI candidate in Punjab echoed some of his KP counterpart’s concerns: “Would it have been better had I known earlier I would get the ticket? Sure. I’ve only had 20 days to put today a campaign and recruit people and that’s asking a lot.”
Ultimately, the gap between the exuberance of Khan and the caution of party members is about a difference over how many voters will turn out for the PTI on May 11.
For Khan at least, there is no room for doubt in these last days of the campaign. “It’s unbelievable. You have to see it to believe it,” Khan says of support for the party he believes he will lead to power on May 11.