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Imran Khan’s big win

The Imran Khan faithful had anointed the byelections held on Sunday, October 16 as a referendum. In the end, like everything else this year, the debate really isn’t whether the PTI is the dominant political party of the country, nor if Imran Khan is the country’s most popular leader.

The debate is really about the degree to which those two things are true. The PTI has now won two big by-election litmus tests with thumping overall margins – a Punjab by-election in June and a nationwide by-election in October. Only a fool would argue the PTI’s runaway popularity.

Imran Khan’s path to a truly dominant majority at the next general election however is far from secure. He and his party now face two big obvious questions, and two questions that are less obvious, but equally big.

The two big obvious questions are: one, can the PDM coalition deliver enough of a performance between now and the election to renew confidence among voters? Two, will the Election Commission of Pakistan be able to deliver a process that can be deemed to be (regardless of the whining of the losing party) a free, fair and credible election?

The less obvious, but equally big questions are: one, will the new set of leaders in Rawalpindi cause a disruption to the so-called neutrality of the so-called umpire of Pakistani politics, or will there be a renewal of vows between natural allies (the security establishment and its long-curated, and now estranged political masterpiece – IK and the PTI)?

Two, will the Pakistani economy be able to withstand the cumulative devastation of the downward impact of the floods on agricultural output, the continued downward pressure on the rupee as global interest rates rise and the US dollar stays strong, and the upward pressure on oil and gas prices as OPEC+ defies President Joe Biden?

The PDM coalition would love nothing more than to be buffeted by the easy excuse of the global economic slowdown. But voters in country after country keep demonstrating the uselessness of ‘expert analysis’ that tries to explain away the collapse of the neoliberal elite consensus – from Italy, to the United States, to the Philippines, to Poland. There is no reason to believe Pakistani voters will approvingly nod in the direction of a deeply unimpressive PDM performance, because, well, “the global economy made us do it”.

More importantly, there is no hiding for the PDM from the absence of anything resembling an exciting or even a coherent offering from within the long list of PDM members. Not one party has an original set of ideas that they are proposing to the Pakistani public. Their only coherent pitch seems to be: “Hey! We’re NOT Imran Khan”.

Even as recently as July 2018, the idea that the entirety of Pakistani politics could be constructed around Imran Khan was a laughable one. But today, the only laughable thing about such an idea, is efforts by old school democrats to attempt to deny the genuine popularity Khan enjoys.

Such is the power of over a decade of relentless television news advocacy, a soft and enabled landing into power in 2018, and the diligent babysitting that Pindi indulged Kaptaan in for three years. True as all this may be, there is one thing, above all, that informs Khan’s popularity today. It is his relatively bold resistance to the dictat of the unelected and the unaccountable. Somehow, Pakistan’s long streak of finding ways to support the underdog continues. The last time Pakistan had a turning point election was 2008. Then too, Pakistani voters went with the underdog: the not-with-the-powerful coalition.

That coalition today is just one man, and it is what makes Imran Khan decidedly more appealing than his immediate competitors in the PML-N, including Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and in the PPP, including Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

In all this, of course, Khan has just about the most epic advantage that anyone can possibly have. Having the cake and eating it too. Khan is at the precipice of successfully pulling off the not-with-the-powerful move, whilst enjoying vast support across the traditional support base for Pindi: educated, urban middle-class voters.

As much as all this should be a cause for the PTI to celebrate, the smart people in the party and around Khan should be treading carefully. The educated, urban middle-class voter has three dimensions that make her (and him) a less certain and less reliable vote bank than the traditional vote banks of some of the PDM member parties.

First, educated, urban middle class voters in Punjab are a product of PML-N economic growth – especially 2008-2018. A plurality of young voters of this ilk may support Imran Khan, but the 2018 election results on and near GT Road, especially in Gujranwala and Lahore, indicate an enduring vote bank for the Sharifs. Just because that vote bank is lacking excitement today doesn’t mean it is lost to Jati Umra forever.

Second, educated, urban middle class voters in Karachi grew up under the cloud of Altaf Hussain’s MQM – they have longed for an alternative, and arguably found it in the PTI. Except that the 2018 election was most compromised in two places: in southern Punjab and in Karachi. A free and fair election in Karachi, that includes a unified MQM-Pakistan, may not be the cakewalk that Insafians want it to be.

Third, educated, urban middle class voters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have now voted PTI in very large numbers for over a decade. That excitable 21-year-old voter in Pakhtunkhwa from back in 2013? He is now over thirty years old. Nothing lasts forever, even pure Insafian rain (of voters). The by-election in NA-31 (Peshawar V) saw a voter turnout of 20 per cent. Surely that is not a good sign for those with great certitude about the tsunami of support that the party continues to enjoy in Pakhtunkhwa.

Of course, the PTI has one sure thing to negate any headwinds it faces. That sure thing is demography. Imran Khan’s wild and irresponsible post-VONC narratives, especially around foreign policy, have ignited the imagination of young Pakistanis, sick of the apologetic posture the Republic tactically adopts with effortlessness. The voter population has grown from around 106 million in 2018 to over 122 million today. Those 16 million extra voters won’t all vote for Imran Khan – but how many will? This is a question that should cause everyone to join PM Shahbaz Sharif in investing in sleepless nights (and ceaseless, unrelenting workdays).

Sleepless nights should not be limited to the PML-N. There are other kinds of headwinds that are faced, not just by Imran Khan or PM Shehbaz Sharif, but the nation at large. The three that should be of deepest concern are all related to the overarching Achilles heel cultivated by the Pakistani elite itself.

First, the continuing signs of a very significant revival of the terrorist group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in Swat and across the former FATA districts. Second, the socio-political fallout from the 2022 floods – unknown thus far, but very likely to include significant new political dynamics that lean right wing. Third, the possible sudden awakening of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – asleep for now, as has been visible in the June and October by-elections, but no doubt, still running on backup power.

Like always however, these threats will continue to be buried under a news cycle in which it is Imran Khan first, Imran Khan second, and Imran Khan third. If Khan and the PTI are indeed as confident as they say they are about this momentum and its longevity, someone in the PTI should be preparing to deal with these questions and these threats.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "Imran Khan’s big win," The News. 2022-10-18.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political dynamics , Political fallout , Democrats , Election , Taliban , Imran Khan , PM Shahbaz Sharif , Pakistan , PTI , TTP , FATA