When the mainstream media begins to compare Pakistani politicians to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it's time to take notice. And after drawing over 70,000 people (with some claiming as many as 100,000) to a rally in Lahore on Sunday, Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician and chairman of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party, is being likened to the former prime minister and father of Benazir Bhutto. The parallel is meant to highlight Khan's populist appeal and ability to mobilize the masses at a grassroots level. Such comparisons may be premature: political rallies where so-called supporters are bused in at the party's expense are rarely good indicators of electoral prospects. But the unforeseen turnout -- almost double the number expected -- makes it worth considering what Khan's growing appeal may mean in the run up to Pakistan's general elections, scheduled for 2013.
Until now, Khan's political trajectory has been viewed with cynicism. His opponents argue that he is being funded and facilitated by Pakistan's intelligence agencies in order to erode the vote bank of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which dominates politics in the populous Punjab province and leads the opposition at the federal level. This theory is fueled by soaring tensions between the PML-N and the Pakistani army. Former prime minister and PML-N president Nawaz Sharif continues to resent his dismissal from office in 1999 through a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. His party has therefore called for increased accountability for army generals and defense expenditures as well as improved ties with India, issues that run counter to the army's security policies. Owing to this context, few paid heed to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in June that found Khan to be the most popular political figure in Pakistan.
However, the attendance at Sunday's rally complicates this theory. While Khan may enjoy the support of some in the security establishment, he was able to attract droves of young men, women, students, children and representatives of minority communities to the Lahore rally to echo his "save the country" mantra. Moreover, the Lahore rally was not a one-off: a gathering in the Punjabi city of Gujranwala on September 25 also drew a significant number of attendees. Together, these rallies suggest that Khan has made significant inroads in Punjab.
Khan's appeal is not surprising. He is best known as the captain who brought back the Cricket World Cup to Pakistan in 1992. Pakistanis also appreciate his philanthropic instincts: in 1994, he founded the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Center, which offers free care for cancer patients. As such, Khan is a departure from leaders who hail from political dynasties, such as the Bhuttos or the Sharifs, and boast immense rural landholdings. Since the PTI boycotted the 2008 general elections and has no representation in parliament, the party's record is also clean. Khan is thus better positioned than the PML-N to denounce the corrupt practices of "Mr. Ten Percent," as Pakistan's President and co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Asif Ali Zardari is widely known.
But the real key to Khan's popularity lies in his public stance against U.S. foreign policy, and what he describes as Washington's interference in Pakistan's internal affairs. He has consistently condemned drone strikes against militants in Pakistan's tribal belt, and argued that Pakistan's alliance with the United States is the main reason why the country is now facing a Taliban insurgency. Khan was careful on Sunday to indicate that he would be open to continued ties with the United States if he came to office, but only on Pakistan's terms. This is a heartening message for millions of Pakistanis who are still reeling from the audacity of the unilateral U.S. raid against Osama bin Laden's compound in May, which many saw as a brash violation of Pakistan's national sovereignty and an act of betrayal by a so-called ally. If this tactic succeeds, Khan will not be the first Pakistani politician to convert anti-Americanism into votes. In 2002, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a conglomeration of religious parties, was able to form the provincial government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by campaigning against the American use of force in Afghanistan and Washington's coercive policies that led Pakistan to join the fight against global terrorism.
Despite his populist appeal, it remains unclear what impact Khan will have on election day. The PTI's ability to win the support of district-level politicians and draw voters to the ballot box remains untested, owing to the party's boycott of the last elections. Moreover, Khan's popularity seems to be confined to the urban areas of the Punjab province and parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Urban voters in Pakistan are historically less likely than their rural counterparts to cast votes, and unless Khan can drum up support in the Punjabi countryside -- traditionally the stronghold of the PML-N -- the PTI is likely to fall short. One possible scenario is the PML-N and PTI could split the votes in the Punjab province, a situation that would strengthen the PPP's overall position and lead the incumbents to form the government in a second term.
In light of Pakistan's recent shift towards a culture of coalition politics, some analysts have also floated the possibility of a political divide along ideological lines, with center-right parties such as the PTI, PML-N and various religious political parties closing ranks against the more liberal PPP, Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Punjab-based Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) faction. Given the fierce competition and animosity between Khan's PTI and Sharif's PML-N, a center-right coalition seemed difficult to imagine. But on Monday, Khan announced that he would be willing to consider reconciling with the PML-N if Sharif declared his real assets, in a step towards promoting taxation and eradicating corruption. In Pakistani politics, stranger things have been known to happen.
Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn Newspaper, and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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