A couple of years back or so I interviewed the Pakistani politician Imran Khan for a newspaper article in which he predicted the country faced a “tsunami” in the next elections: "I think the first genuine revolution will come in Pakistan. And I mean through the ballot box. Of course, if it doesn't come through the ballot box there will be bloodshed in Pakistan. But I reckon that the next election will bring the biggest revolution in Pakistan in the sense that the entire old, degenerate, corrupt ruling elite will be wiped off - they will be swept aside."
Khan’s confidence in what was to come was so catching that at the end of the interview I half-jokingly asked him if he would still give me another interview if his party ever came to power in Pakistan. He answered in the affirmative.
The surge in “Khan” mania which has been sweeping the streets of Pakistan in the run-up to tomorrow’s elections makes me wonder if I might soon have the opportunity to arrange an interview with the country’s next head of state. But Khan faces a formidable challenge in the political arena in the form of the PML (N) and PPP, the two mainstream parties which have played musical chairs alongside the military in ruling and ruining the country.
Whoever comes to power will have to face up to the myriad of challenges Pakistan faces today. Top of the list are the security crises, energy shortages, poor educational infrastructure and sky-high corruption. There are those who argue Pakistan performed much better under the former dictator Pervez Musharraf rather than the current democratic setup. Although dictatorship brought a lot of misery, the economy and security situation was certainly much better (although still very bad so no real brownie points for the ex-dictator). In that sense you could say Pakistan has become a challenge for the very concept of democracy which people seem to automatically assume is a kind of universally applicable system of government for all the nations of the Earth.
Usually in electoral analyses voters are differentiated into categories like “liberal”, “conservative”, “nationalist” and so on. In Pakistan such as an analysis is of limited use as you also have to take into account other categories like “feudal” or “illiterate.” There are still millions of people in the country who do not know how to read or write due to a lack of funds allocated by successive government to education. The liberation of the private media over the past 10-12 years has also lessened the relevancy of these restrictive labels by creating awareness of political corruption and human rights.
The reason Khan is most popular with young people is because he speaks exactly like the millions of disaffected youths – as an outsider with little political baggage. One of his promises is to disengage Pakistan from the US-led war on terror which has ruined the country. This may mean giving orders to the country’s military to shoot down US drones: "If the government supports drone strikes, it should come clean and say so. If, on the other hand, it genuinely opposes them, then it should order the Pakistan Air Force to shoot them down."
This is exactly the kind of language his supporters love, and which makes his critics – both inside and outside the country – shudder. The more grey hair and wrinkled skin you have, the less likely you are to be a Khan supporter. Some older generation Pakistanis see him as inexperienced leader who is too harshly critical of the old political establishment and the big players– the very qualities which are his key selling points. His causes place Khan among the leaders and activists who have struggled for the peoples of the Global South. On the death of the late Hugo Chavez back in March Khan tweeted:”Sad 2 hear of bold Venezuelan Pres Hugo Chavez's death. He stood firm against forces of imperialism in trad of great Latin American ldrs. RIP”
What makes Khan's message even more appealing is his belief in the welfare state and his suspicion of reliance on foreign aid. Instead he has spoken of improving Pakistan's poorly implemented taxation system. An example of the problems with foreign aid initiatives was the USAID funding of a Pakistani version of Sesame Street to “increase tolerance” in the country towards women and ethnic minorities. The project was halted last year following allegations of serious corruption.
Khan's recent fall at a rally in Lahore which landed him in hospital for a few days has turned the man into an even bigger hero to his supporters. “If you want to change your destiny you will have to take responsibility,” he said in a video message after being unable to physically participate at more rallies. Analysts remain undecided and conflicted about the level of impact of the “tsunami,” but it is always good to be prepared for any major shakeups.