The increasing popularity of Imran Khan makes him look like a serious contender for the leadership of Pakistan in the next national election in 2013. A recent rally in Lahore drew twice the expected crowd and a Pew Research Center poll in June found him to be the most popular political figure in the country.
Imran Khan's personal charm, his rhetoric and his message of hope and change sound very familiar to those of us who follow American politics. His charismatic appeal to youth was the driving force behind President Obama's success, but while it was sufficient to get him elected, Obama's popularity has waned as the difficulties of governing have revealed his lack of real political power.
This is the sad truth about political leadership today -- telegenic charm and money can win an election, but good governance needs more than that and Pakistan is certainly looking for a leader to save its soul. Imran Khan has populist appeal with his stand against corruption and his criticism of US policy in Pakistan. But will he have enough support and gravitas to lead his country out of its economic slump and lack of moral direction?
The US presidential primary process underway offers a cautionary tale for would-be leaders -- campaign promises are not enough. After a while, the voting public gets tired of candidates who offer nothing more than passionate platform speeches. They want specific programs spelled out in practical detail and they want their future President to be morally upright, intellectually gifted and with the strength and stature to deal with other international leaders. Charm is not enough, being a successful businessman is not enough and being a moral puritan is not enough. America's Republican candidates one by one are being heralded, then closely examined, then dismissed by a public who presumably will finally opt for a wise, dignified and experienced moderate to represent them in the election next year.
A major undercurrent in Pakistan is the recent shift towards a culture of coalition politics. The party founded by Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), boycotted the last election in 2008 so Khan is in a good position to challenge Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari or "Mr Ten Percent" as he is widely known. As the PTI is considered a center-right party, it will be interesting to see what alliances are forged as the election draws closer. Recently Khan announced that he would consider a reconciliation with the opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif was ousted in a military coup and is no supporter of the military with its huge defense expenditures. However, Imran Khan may feel he needs the army's support to win the election and it has already been suggested that he is being funded by Pakistan's intelligence agencies -- rumors most probably initiated by his opponents. His outspoken criticism of US policy in Pakistan however, may result in the US cutting off military aid to his army supporters, which would weaken his position considerably. Khan will need to focus on the fundamental purpose of the national armed forces and decide if the Army's role is to defend the borders against external foes, or to preserve the political power of particular domestic parties. The complex game of political chess continues.
Imran Khan's greatest strength however, is likely to be his appeal to the youth of Pakistan. If he can offer hope and jobs to the next generation, he will be a real force in Pakistani politics. He needs to bring in top policy experts and professionals to help draft specific programs to address the nations' economic problems. He also needs to address his country's relationship with international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the Asian Development Bank.
Speakers at the recent Occupy Islamabad protest called attention to the devastating impacts of privatization and restructuring in the state enterprises such as Pakistan Communications and Pakistan Railways; the failure of World Bank funded mega-water initiatives; the progressive deterioration of public services such as health and education and the exponential increase in the prices of basic amenities.
Imran Khan's manifesto and vision for Pakistan is outlined in a 10-point agenda for his party and includes friendship with the US but not at the expense of Pakistan's sovereignty, closer ties with China and negotiations with India and Kashmir. Khan vows to end the generation of power crisis, improve education and health in villages, ensure rights of minorities and improve education for women. Perhaps his most important demand is that for an independent election commission. In this way, a fair and democratic election for the Presidency of Pakistan could lead to Imran Khan becoming the next President in 2013 and his hugely important task to Save Pakistan can then begin.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.
More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com