Imran Khan. Photo: World Economic Forum. flickrOn the world stage Pakistan is set as a land of contradiction, described as being “on the brink,” a nation where notions of the western and eastern worlds intersect and rule over one another, political elite over a socially conservative and religious populace. In Pakistan, a country where politics has been marred by corruption and foreign nations’ policy initiatives, politics is a dirty business.
Against the bleak democratic landscape, one political party is gaining momentum and promises to culminate in a tsunami – the good kind. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), meaning Movement for Justice, founded by former cricket champion turned politician vis-à-vis philanthropy, Imran Khan, is leading what his campaign calls “a democratic revolution.” PTI is especially popular amongst students and youth, adding a new dimension to the upcoming general elections, which must take place by February.
PTI has used modern strategies, including international media and the Internet—social media, live video stream at its events, and membership via SMS—to spread its agenda and interact with the youth who have grown fed up with politics as usual. These tactics may prove particularly significant for a country of 180 million people with a majority under the age of 25. The party prides itself on its practice of direct representative democracy. Voting builds from the local government level upward. PTI will hold its intra-party elections this June.
PTI followers. Photo: Musti Mohsin. flickerPTI’s International Coordinator’s for the Skåne region in Sweden, Badar Kamal and Taimoor Abbass, promote the party’s policies and gather overseas support, especially among Pakistanis living abroad, which they say is one of the most important parts of PTI’s campaign for a country where remittances play a large role in annual GDP. “We are trying to get those people back,” Taimoor explains, “either physically or economically.”
The party’s campaign operates on two major platforms: social justice and the eradication of corruption. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf envisions “an Islamic social welfare state,” as Taimoor puts it. He explains the party’s idea of equality, “The son of a minister or the son of a farmer should get the same education, they should get the same medical facilities, and they should get the same justice. That is the model he [Imran Khan] uses from Sweden.”
The other major cornerstone of the campaign is its fight against corruption. PTI’s slogan depicts a tsunami, alluding to a force of great magnitude made up of the Pakistani masses that promises to wipe clean the sort of corruption that has become commonplace in its political structures. Badar believes that working on the campaign can bring new options for his people, “A poor nation, when they become more poor, has nothing else but to take corruption as an option.” He is confident about the role the party can play in Pakistan’s democracy. “We are creating a new trend in the country,” he says, “a new democratic history.”
Not all Pakistanis see PTI’s campaign as the driving force for a grassroots, civil society-building movement. “PTI is primarily a political movement, not a social one,” says Rab Nawaz, Executive Committee member at Khudi, a self-professed counter-extremist movement in Pakistan building civil society and promoting democracy through education and engagement. “The problem with PTI’s approach is too much emphasis on rhetoric than a real substantive alternative,” Rab says. “To a great extent it is a personality charisma coupled with a general resentment against the government and an increasing mistrust of the system.”
Some of Khudi’s members seem to think while PTI’s campaign addresses some of the issues that have stunted democracy in Pakistan, it can be much stronger via a true social reformation. “The idea is to empower them and give them a sense of direction,” Rab says, “not merely mobilize them for a sudden regime change.” This belief is evident in the organization’s name. “Khudi” means “selfhood,” alluding to a movement of self-determination, for the people and for Pakistan as a whole.
Rab speaks of the divide between those in support of Imran, “Some idealize him and view him as Messiah, while most think him as a better option: someone who has credentials, has not been tried and deserves a chance.” Both PTI’s international campaigners and Rab Nawaz can agree that the campaign has done something for democracy in Pakistan. Rab adheres, “I do not deny PTI’s role in politicizing and mobilizing a large number of dormant youth.”
In the upcoming elections, Imran and his PTI party will face the two dominant political parties, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) who have shared political power for the past few decades. “Technically, the most important thing is fair and free elections,” Taimoor reminds us.
The young generation in Pakistan seems to need a democratic leader, some hope to battle the notion of a future defined by uncertainty, utterly unreasoned. If Imran Khan and his PTI party is that great hope is yet to be determined.