Pakistan Election: Fresh narrative, focus on youth and lack of alternatives aided Imran Khan's win in KP province

Peshawar: Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has emerged as the largest party in the country's General Elections held this week. Though short of clear majority, talks are already underway with other "like-minded parties" to reach the magic number of 137 and form a coalition government at the National Assembly.

The 2018 election results have shocked most political analysts who were not expecting PTI to win the National Assembly election. They also expected PTI to face a tough time in Punjab from competing parties, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). But just like how the 2016 US presidential elections perturbed the world, the Pakistan general election too has stumped analysts.

The PTI emerged as favourite, not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in the National Assembly elections, while making major gains in PML-N's stronghold Punjab and PPP's citadel Sindh. The question is why? Amid allegations of rigging and manipulation — with several instances in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which prove them right — it would be wrong to ignore the role of the man at the centre and the role he played.

Both, on and off the field, Imran is known for hard work and stubbornness. In 2013, his party formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with support from alliance partners. In 2013, PTI's election slogan was "change and modernity" in all departments. Though, theoretically and on social media, Imran brought modernity to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it was a different story on the ground. But if anybody counters it on the internet, PTI has a strong social media team, which constantly defends the party and is involved in spreading a pro-Imran propaganda.

His government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was weak and several corruption allegations were leveled against him. Despite the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission, which was created to root out corruption and to restore public trust in the government, the Billion Tree Tsunami project, the '360 Dams' project to resolve Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's water problem and school enrollment initiatives and police reforms, the PTI government couldn't get the desired results. In the last leg of election campaigning, the Peshawar High Court even ordered an NAV investigation over corruption allegations in the Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit project.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there's an old saying: 'The province never gives a party a second chance, especially one which doesn't perform'. But despite the shortcomings of the PTI government, the voters still gave an unpredictable mandate.

The youth factor

As per the United National Development Programme (UNDP), the youth forms 64 percent of Pakistan's population, the largest percentage of youth in the world. Though at 35 percent, this percentage is much lesser in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of the 1,53,16,299 registered voters in the province, youth were one of the main targets of PTI's election campaign.

The youth in Pakistan follow Imran like a spiritual leader, particularly in the Pashtun belt. On election day, it was clear that young college and university students wanted to give him a chance to become Prime Minister of Pakistan.

On polling day, Imran's popularity resulted into something never seen before in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While travelling across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on polling day, one witnessed the youth btringing out women from their families to vote for Imran. In the conservative Pashtun region, other political parties never focussed on women voters, but PTI did, and the difference is evident.

Lack of alternatives

"Voters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had no alternative, and that's why Imran became the first choice," said Hussain Shaheed Saharwardi, a professor at the University of Peshawar. He added that voters in the province have given enough chances to other parties but no one delivered as Imran did.

Imran brought about changes in a few departments, although not in the whole set-up, Saharwardi said. Some of the most attractive changes brought about by Imran in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were the Right to Information and Right to Services Acts. These changes — however small they may have been — worked in his favour. Of the 97 provincial seats that went to polls (polling in two seats was postponed), PTI won 67 seats — almost double its 2013 numbers — in the province.

Prominent parties and candidates from dynastic backgrounds have lost their ancestral seats. The news is astonishing for political students and analysts, especially in the province's South where the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) head Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman lost, and lost badly, to the PTI.

It was expected that Maulana with other religious parties would form the provincial government with the leftist Awami National Party (ANP). The ANP was expecting at least 25 seats, but the party lost very badly even in its birthplace of Charsadda. ANP chief Asfandyar Khan lost his seat to a PTI candidate, as did several other stalwarts from the party.

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal-Pakistan (MMA-P), which includes 2013 runner-up JUI-F, could manage just 10 seats. This was less than what JUI-F won alone in 2013. The ANP, which was considered a major contender to PTI, secured just 6 seats, whereas the PML-N managed just 5 seats (7 fewer than its 2013 figures) and PPP managed just four.

"PML-N never tried to improve its performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and after Benazir Bhutto's death, the PPP couldn’t rise in the province. The Leftists are famous for bad governance and religious parties for their hard stances, but Imran believes in modernity and nationwide politics, which makes his posture acceptable," said Saharwadi.

On Thursday, the PML-N, ANP, PPP and MMA-P all rejected the election verdict, and called it a "selection, not election". They have alleged that invisible hands rigged the election and favoured PTI candidates. These allegations were made in the run-up to the election as well, and beside politicians, even political commentators wrote about how the elections may have been rigged in Imran's favour.

Senior politicians Haji Ghulam Bilour of ANP and Arbab Alamgir of PPP have admitted their defeat and said Imran is still the favourite leader of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa voters. "It's for a greater democratic purpose that I accept my defeat. Imran is still a popular politician among Pashtun voters and that's the reason he is winning," said Bilour.

The militancy factor

Besides, the fresh wave of militancy during the election campaign also paved the way for Imran, because his opponents were stuck inside their houses while he was out addressing rallies.

In his victory speech, Imran said that he was threatened eight times during the campaign, but he didn't end the drive. What he left out, however, was that the same day that he was holding two huge public rallies in Mardan and Swabi, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was asked not to address a rally in the same in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There was clearly no level playing field in the province.

The ANP has historically been the party worst affected by militancy, and it was no different in this election either, as ANP's campaign was severely impacted. The party lost its main leader Haroun Ali Bilour in a suicide attack on 11 July, an attack for which the Taliban later claimed responsibility.

Lehaz Ali, a political journalist from the province, said that leaders from other parties made several mistakes when dealing with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While they initiated massive propaganda against other parties and leaders, Imran's PTI was strangely excluded. "It paved the way for PTI to came into power again," Ali said.

Changing the narrative

Professor Ammar Ali Jan is of the view that PTI has established a narrative for the middle class, and managed to managed to touch the lower strata of society as well. "PTI said it delivered in services and it worked. The new generation follows the new style and that's why Pashtun voters rejected the traditional politics of ANP, PPP, PMLN and others," said Jan.

He said the young educated Pashtun voters have expectations from the state, and they don't wish to bow down before the village councils or mohallas. "The old parties didn't reorient or restructure themselves, and the voters rejected their old narrative. Besides, the establishment was also supporting PTI. It's due to these reasons that Imran was elected rules of Pakistan," Jan added.

Ali said that while Imran didn't actually deliver on all his promises in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he did challenge the feudal system with his narrative. "Aggressive politics naturally suits Imran," he said.

While Imran's pro-Islamist and pro-Taliban stand was often highlighted by the Opposition leaders, Ali claimed that his opponents may have misread the voters, and that religion is no longer a major concern for voters in the province.

But there are several questions that still remain unanswered. Will it be possible for a weak central government to rein in the powerful military establishment? Will Imran be able to implement the Constitution in letter and spirit? It's too early to say with certainty.

Imran was famous for his greediness shown on the cricket field, while trying to win at all costs. The upcoming days will show whether he manages to bring peace to the region, or will he merely follow on the footsteps of his predecessors. Professor Hussain said, "Because of Imran's philanthropic acts, people trust him, and that's why they voted for him. But I'm sure that if he doesn't deliver this time, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will dump him as well."


Updated Date: Jul 28, 2018 13:48 PM

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