Pakistan's Dream Catcher

In Pakistan, the former cricket star and populist Imran Khan is attracting an ever-growing number of followers. His rise underlines the widespread dissatisfaction with the current leadership. Marcus Michaelsen reports from Islamabad

By Marcus Michaelsen

If Imran Khan has his way, it will take him only ninety days to root out corruption in Pakistan. If it were up to him, all of the country's politicians would have already had to publically disclose their wealth. A government under Khan's leadership would adhere to the principles of modesty and transparency.

The former cricket star has a clear opinion about another of the country's problems. Terrorist attacks and extremism can only be overcome by ending Pakistan's alliance with the USA. Drone attacks and military action in the border region with Afghanistan only promote the growth of militant groups, he says. Pakistan's sovereignty is being sold in exchange for American financial aid.

Imran Khan's simple solutions are receiving notice. In the past few months, rallies held by Khan's Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) have drawn up to a hundred thousand people. Khan founded the PTI some 15 years ago, but has, up until now, chosen to sit on the political "reserve bench". The dissatisfaction with the current government under President Zardari, however, has led to a growth in the number of Khan's followers. With his gaze directed at the elections scheduled for 2013, Khan sees his moment as having arrived and wants to transform his country at the head of a "political tsunami".

Transforming Pakistan into an "Islamic social state"

Muhammad Iqbal (photo: Muhammad Iqbal Academy)
Highly acclaimed "Muslim philosophical thinker of modern times": Muhammad Iqbal is widely regarded as having inspired the Pakistan Movement that called establishing Pakistan as an independent Islamic state

​​His seemingly tenacious self-assurance stems from a life journey that no other politician in Pakistan can boast. In 1992, as the captain of the national cricket team, he won the country's only world championship title in the popular sport. Later, he used donations to build a modern cancer ward in which patients are treated without regard to their income. He promotes a private university along similar lines.

At the same time, the sport star, who is know to this day for his playboy lifestyle, has found religion. He has chosen as his role model the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, regarded as the spiritual founding father of Pakistan. A pioneer of reformist Islam, Iqbal sought a balance between authenticity and modernism. His ideas remain relevant for a country that continues to be unclear as to its identity. Iqbal's work has influenced Imran Khan in his deliberations on an "Islamic social state".

Khan's call for religion and national pride to play a greater role appeal primarily to a gradually growing urban middle class. The frustration about Pakistan's stalled development runs particularly deep among this group. The large political parties in the country are seen as a cartel, which has left power and wealth firmly in the hands of close-knit family clans for decades. As the political elite have shown neither the desire or ability to act against the energy crisis, inflation, and social tensions, the population is looking for alternatives.

"Facebook revolution myth" popular in Pakistan

The PTI has focused on this milieu with an aggressive communication strategy. The party's Secretary General, Arif Alvi, enthusiastically declared that a simple registration via SMS has attracted 600,000 new members since the end of 2011. The actual goal of the campaign, however, was to reach the 5 million mark.

Around a hundred thousand people follow Imran Kahn's pronouncements and numerous Facebook profiles connect his young adherents. Polls are conducted among party followers through the internet and via mobile phone.

Pakistani cricket legend-turned politician Imran Khan, center wearing cap, addresses the crowd during a rally against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas, Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Peshawar, Pakistan (photo: AP)
"Call for religion and national pride": Imran Khan addresses the crowd during a rally against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas in Peshawar

​​The use of social media by Barack Obama in his successful 2008 campaign for president has been a source of inspiration. "Yes we Khan" is one of the slogans popular with PTI supporters. Comparisons have also been made to the Arab Spring. Similar to Tunisia and Egypt, two thirds of the Pakistani population is under 30 years old. Will Imran Khan be able to mobilise the country's youth with the help of new media to achieve a political transformation? The myth of the Facebook revolution is powerful in Pakistan as well.

However, only 11 percent of all Pakistanis have access to the Internet. Far more influential are the private television stations, which have enjoyed immense popularity for the last decade. In the competition for ratings, they gladly broadcast Imran Khan's rallies, which have all the trappings of a rock concert. Until now, the coverage of his party has been attentive and sympathetic.

Shortage of suitable personnel

The honeymoon between the media and Imran Khan will soon be over, asserts Arsha Sharif, director of the Dunya News TV station in Islamabad. He anticipates that each and every candidate for the PTI will be scrutinized as soon as the election campaign begins. The private broadcasters are well aware of their political role since they provided a platform for the protest movement against the former military ruler General Musharraf four years ago.

Before the elections take place, a number of issues have to be addressed within the party. It has to find candidates for every electoral district in the country. Apart from its popular leader, the PTI suffers from a shortage of suitable personnel. The structures of the established parties, by contrast, reach deep into the provinces and villages of Pakistan, where votes are cast on the basis of widespread networks of patronage and personal loyalties. The majority of seats in Parliament still come from rural regions.

Imran Khan (photo: Abdul Sabooh / DW)
Gaze directed at the elections scheduled for 2013: As the political elite have shown neither the desire or ability to act against the energy crisis, inflation, and social tensions, the population is looking for alternatives

​​For this reason, the PTI has now opened itself to members of other parties willing to make a change. The most prominent defector to date is former Foreign Minister Mahmud Qureshi, who last November gave up his parliamentary seat and his membership in the governing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) out of protest against the government's servile attitude towards the USA. He has even been awarded with a high ranking position within the PTI, which has provoked a certain degree of frustration on the part of well-established activists in the party.

Imran Khan's rising popularity is attracting skilled professional politicians, who are willing to change parties without qualms and hope to secure a seat in Parliament on his coattails. This poses a distinct dilemma for the PTI, as it as always stressed that it would only accept "clean" politicians. Yet, without these established figures and their followers, it is almost impossible to win an election. But this means that Khan places himself in contact with exactly the kind of people he is campaigning against.

Solutions too simple for Pakistan's complex problems?

Pakistan's liberal circles have since been showing a degree of irritation with Imran Khan. Blogs and leading articles in the English language press have enthusiastically torn apart every one of his appearances. They are especially incensed by what they see as his affected turn to Islam and the anti-American rhetoric. Many are also suspicious of the simple solutions that Khan offers for the country's complex problems.

According to the journalist Afia Salam, the PTI leader does deserve praise for mobilizing the young and educated section of the population, which has until now shown little interest in politics. Apparently, the philanthropist and cricket star turned popular politician offers the country's youth a welcome blank slate upon which they can pin their hopes and aspirations.

In any event, Pakistan's governing elite should certainly be concerned as to whether and how this newfound commitment will be sustained and, in particular, what direction it may take.

Marcus Michaelsen

© 2012

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/