People & Power

Imran Khan: Next man in?

Former cricketer Imran Khan is now playing for a greater prize – but can he upset Pakistan’s political status quo?

Once an international cricket star, Pakistan’s Imran Khan is now playing for a greater prize – to be his country’s next prime minister. But can he upset the political status quo?

People & Power has hit the campaign trail to find out.

‘What a beautiful country’

It is late afternoon but still oppressively warm as Imran Khan shows People & Power around the grounds of his house. It sits atop a ridge near the village of Bani Gala, just a few miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and has impressive views of the foothills of the Himalayas and the outskirts of the city.

As his dogs scamper around his heels, he is in a reflective mood – frowning as his attention is caught by some scruffy new buildings nearby. “Look, it’s such a beautiful country, but we’re doing everything to destroy it. Just look at that unplanned settlement, all unplanned … which is why I went into politics.”

If his remarks seem just a little too rehearsed, then perhaps it is understandable.

We are not the first journalists to visit him here and surely will not be the last and it cannot be easy to come up with fresh sounding justifications every time he is asked why he is trying to make a difference in his country. But what does seem genuine is his frustration with the political status quo in Pakistan and his resolve to do something about it.

“The country is in the grip of a political mafia. Basically there were two parties and they were taking turns in using politics to make money. So I came to the conclusion 16 years ago, either we fight for our country or we watch it go down.”

On the margins

The turnout at a PTI rally in Lahore in October 2011 stunned Pakistan’s political classes [EPA]

Sixteen years ago Imran Khan was best known for his prowess on the cricket field, a legendary all-rounder who had come out of retirement at the age of 39 to lead Pakistan to its first and only victory in the sport’s 1992 World Cup.

But then after four years devoted to charity and social work (somewhat offset by an international reputation as a playboy and a nine-year marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of the late British billionaire James Goldsmith), he grew increasingly disgusted by the suffocating bureaucracy and endemic corruption that he saw everywhere in Pakistan and decided to enter politics.

In 1996, he founded the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Union for Justice or PTI) and was elected as its sole MP in the 2002 general election.

He spent the next five years on the margins of Pakistan’s political life – a high-profile figure who nevertheless lacked the popular support to challenge the power base of the country’s two largest parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

As the two parties’ leaders, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, fought for power through years dominated by the ever-present threat of army intervention, Khan and his tiny party were often dismissed as politically irrelevant and unlikely ever to be in a position to influence events.

Wave of popular disaffection

But in the autumn of 2007 things began to change.

That October, Khan and 85 other MPs resigned from the country’s parliament in protest at the presidential election, which General Pervez Musharraf was contesting without resigning as army chief.

Khan was briefly arrested in the emergency that followed and then re-emerged to become an increasingly vocal critic of the status quo.

And then in December 2007, Pakistan’s political scene was thrown into turmoil once again as the PPP’s Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a campaign rally. Her husband Asif Ali Zadari was elected president in 2008, but since then he and the others of the old guard who survived Bhutto have seen their popularity wane, allowing Khan and the PTI to seize their chance.

In late 2011, he stunned the political classes in Islamabad by unexpectedly attracting hundreds of thousands of supporters to public rallies in Lahore and Karachi. Calling for a ‘tsunami’ to end the country’s political and economic problems, and declaring his determination to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, he has since been surfing a wave of popular disaffection that many observers now believe could propel him all the way to the top.

‘They want a change’

Tens of thousands of supporters attended a PTI rally in Karachi – traditionally a PPP stronghold – on December 25, 2011 [EPA]

So can he really break the mould of Pakistani politics? In an effort to find out, People & Power sent filmmakers Karim Shah and Shad Khan to follow Imran Khan as he addressed rallies around the country.

With a general election expected this year, Khan hopes that his ‘tsunami’ will prove attractive in parts of rural Pakistan that have long been ignored or taken for granted by the two main parties. And judging from the enthusiastic reaction he gets everywhere he goes he is certainly making waves.

But it is hard to tell from the reaction to his stump speeches whether his growing popularity is due to his party’s policies – moderately Islamist, modestly conservative, de-regulatory, anti-elitist, avowedly anti-corruption but so far short on specifics – or just to the fact he is not from the PPP or the PML-N, with which people seem to be losing patience.

What is certain is that the rallies are well attended, that the PTI is now surging ahead in the polls and that Khan’s celebrity is proving attractive to a number of high-profile defectors from the main parties who have signed up to the PTI in recent months – politicians such as Shah Mahmoud, a former foreign minister of Pakistan who walked out of President Zardari’s government in February 2011.

This has caused some infighting among Imran Khan’s bedrock supporters, who, according to political commentator Talat Hussain, see the newcomers as opportunists. “These guys were seen with Musharraf, with Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, the former dictator …. These people have not reinvented themselves, and suddenly they are sitting with Imran Khan shoving out the die-hard Imran Khan loyalists who were hoping to be the new politicians in Pakistan. It has created a lot of bitterness.”

But Khan himself clearly believes that this is his moment and that after 16 years of trudging along the lower slopes of Pakistani politics he is finally on the way to the summit.

“I think we’ll sweep the elections, the opposition can’t defeat us now, we might commit Hari Kiri by making stupid decisions but the opposition is not going to be able to challenge us now because people have decided against them. The people of Pakistan have already made up their minds, they want a change.”

undefinedWatch more powerful groundbreaking investigative documentaries from People & Power