Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) founder Imran Khan has urged his party’s leaders and supporters to launch a nationwide electoral campaign ahead of the Feb. 8 polls, alleging the elections will be “rigged to give preferential treatment to a single political party” and a larger voter turnout is required to counter this. Referring to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), he claimed it is “supported by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the caretaker government.” A key concern, however, remains of the PTI having lost its election symbol, with its candidates now contesting as “independents.” Thus, despite public support, Khan’s chances of registering any major political impact remain remote.
Not helping Khan is the world’s disenchantment with him over his anti-West worldview, which generally sells with the Pakistani voter. American commentator Michael Kugelman has gone so far as to say that from Washington’s perspective, “anyone would be better than Khan.” The trouble this could cause Pakistan, which needs massive international support to overcome its prevailing economic crisis, cannot be understated. By contrast, PMLN’s Nawaz Sharif is perceived as “business-friendly and pro-America,” and significantly more “reliable” by the U.S.
The perceived global apathy over Pakistan’s upcoming election highlights its exhaustion with the political instability that has defined the country for over a decade. No one wants to deal with a nuclear-armed country “drowning in $140 billion of external debt” and skyrocketing inflation that could trigger further unrest. Unfortunately, Pakistan has never thought realistically about its standing in the world; with Khan’s interactions with journalists at Adiala Jail suggesting he does not care about it at all. If Sharif—having been ousted thrice already—returns to power, questions remain over whether he would once again fall out with the establishment, unleashing another wave of uncertainty that the country can ill-afford. This might hint at Khan’s posturing that his return is inevitable.
What the PTI—and Khan—must realize is that he needs to learn how to behave as a political leader of a state in deep economic trouble needing international support. This requires self-examination and the realization that his populist rhetoric from prison is misleading voters and deepening the state’s troubles when, by acting pragmatically, he can utilize his popularity to lessen the fear he inspires in the establishment of what could befall the country if he returns to power.
In this regard, his prison stint might actually help. Addressing media after meeting him at Adiala, his sister Aleema Khan said he is using the time to read books and develop “spiritually, mentally and physically.” He wouldn’t be the first politician to emerge from incarceration with a worldview more aligned with what his country needs—rather than what it claims to want.