It’s a tale as old as time. Idealistic man decides he wants to change the system, is frustrated by the structure of the system and the hurdles in puts in the way of challenging the status quo, decides to fight the system by using its own weapons against it, and in doing so becomes the same as the very system he sought to destroy. It sounds like the plot of a hackneyed Bollywood movie charting how an angry young man becomes a jaded cynic, except it is an accurate description of the very real political journey of Imran Khan.

When Imran Khan took to the stage during his famous rally in Lahore in October 2011, he promised a ‘tsunami’ of change the would sweep away a political order characterized by the corruption and ineptitude of an insouciant political elite. This message of change, and Khan’s undeniable charisma, inspired thousands of men and women across the country, many of whom joined the PTI and actively worked to support it and spread its political message in the months leading up to the 2013 elections. These efforts were not entirely in vain; while the PTI fell very short of its intended aim of forming a government at the Center, it was able to win power in KP and establish itself as Pakistan’s second largest political party.

Many in the commentariat, myself included, have long been skeptical of Imran Khan’s ability to deliver on the promises he has been making for the better part of a decade. This skepticism is rooted in a number of related observations. While the language Khan employs is populist, it is far from clear what his motivating ideology and principles are beyond a vague call for accountability and change. Indeed, when looking beneath the surface and engaging in a detailed examination of the statements, policies, and discussions of Khan and his party’s leaders, it would not be unfair or inaccurate to say that ideologically, the PTI is nothing more than yet another conservative party on the Right, wedded to a worldview defined by a commitment to neoliberal capitalism and the maintenance of the traditional social order. Matters are not helped, of course, by the tendency Khan has displayed over the years to downplay the threat posed by the religious militancy, or by his increasingly indefensible remarks and actions when it comes to the rights of women (as evinced by his comments this month on feminism, or by his 2006 rejection of the Protection of Women’s Rights Bill put forward by the Musharraf government). In this sense, whatever his rhetoric may be, there is little reason to believe that a PTI government would represent some kind of ideological departure from the status quo. Indeed, while the polarization of the Pakistan’s political landscape suggests the existence of deep differences between the major parties, one of the greatest ironies of contemporary Pakistani politics e is that there is actually very little to differentiate the PTI from the PML-N.

The similarity between the PTI and the PML-N in ideological terms is not coincidentally related to their electoral strategies. From the very beginning, Imran Khan has demonstrated an obsession with winning power in Punjab. This is understandable since electoral victory in Punjab is essential to forming a government at the Center. However, it is not just parliamentary arithmetic that compels the PTI to relentlessly focus on Pakistan’s largest province; fundamentally, to win the 2018 elections, the PTI needs to cut into the vote bank of the PML-N, offering itself as an alternative to the party that has dominated the province’s politics, in one form or another, for the better part of three decades. While much is made of how the ‘youth’ – inevitably seen as some kind of abstract, undifferentiated mass of people – support Imran Khan and the PTI, the reality is that most PTI voters (including the sections of the youth that support it) are probably not too dissimilar to the ones who vote for the PML-N; socially conservative, nationalistic, middle class (in the cities), and broadly sympathetic to ‘pro-business’ economic policies. It is true that there are wealthier, liberal sections of society that also support the PTI, but their electoral relevance is often overstated and certainly not pivotal in a political sense.

In this context, how does the PTI differentiate itself from the PML-N? Over the past few years, the party’s principal strategy has been to attack the government, and the other mainstream parties, over their corruption. In this, Khan has met with some success, particularly when considering how Nawaz Sharif’s travails in the aftermath of the Panama Papers can at least, in part, be attributed to Khan’s constant efforts to have him held accountable for his alleged misdeeds. However, in electoral terms, the evidence from 2013 seems to suggest that when given a choice between a continuation of Pakistan’s traditional patronage politics and vague promises of change, voters chose to stick with the devil they knew.

This explains why the PTI, since 2013, has opened its doors to a veritable flood of ‘electables’ – constituency politicians, often defecting from other parties, possessing a wealth of electoral experience. The logic used to justify the entry of these actors has long been that they provide the PTI with a clear path to victory in the 2018 elections, using their vote banks and experience to pry seats away from the PML-N and other parties. The problem with this, of course, is that these electables generally represent the very tendencies Imran Khan vowed to fight against in 2011; as masters of traditional patronage politics, itself premised on nepotism and corruption, and as members of different governments perpetuating the dysfunctional status quo over the past twenty years, these electables are not ideological activists nor can they be accused of having reputations unsullied by their involvement in mainstream politics. They are opportunists seeking to capitalize on potentially shifting political winds, and the PTI in turn is more than willing to make use of them as a means to an end.

Imran Khan recently claimed that electables were necessary to win the 2018 elections, and that winning was necessary because change would not be possible without it. The question that should be asked is this: what kind of change is likely to happen if it is brought about by the very same actors who have invested in, and benefited from, the status quo? The defenders of the PTI constantly claim that the presence of a decent, upright man at the top is all that it takes to reform a system, but such statements simply betray a woeful ignorance of history around the world. Similarly, others ask why the PTI is held to a higher standard when the tactics it is now employing are now different from those of its rivals. Again, the answer is simple, the PTI has always claimed to be different and if that is not the case, ideologically or organizationally, then what difference does it make if it wins instead of the PML-N?


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.