With the departure of Ahmed Shuja Pasha as the ISI chief, the momentum behind the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) tsunami has slowed, so it seems. Many who were shocked by the PTI jalsa in Lahore last October have resumed their mocking of the party and its boisterous, idealistic supporters.
Some of the derision aimed at the PTI is warranted. Imran Khan has been prone, as of late, to making promises he will not be able to deliver on. For example, he said if the PTI comes to power, it will end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90. But corruption is deeply embedded in Pakistan’s political soul. It is not a demon that can be exorcised with a prayer. The same goes for terrorism, which will haunt Pakistan even after the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan.
Khan’s gargantuan guarantees play to the politically puerile among his support base, which — it must be said — consists mainly of decent people wanting a better Pakistan, though its unofficial social media face is replete with crude bullies.
It is easy to dismiss the PTI as a hodgepodge of burger babies and their Khan-struck mamas, beardless Taliban, ex-Jamaatis, and political orphans brought together by the former amir of Aabpara and the ease of association enabled by the click of a Facebook or Twitter button.
But the PTI is no fluke. Those who count it out might be in for a rude shock when the next general elections take place. Most analysis of the PTI fails to take into account the party’s prospects in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Fata. In K-P, the PTI has a strong, physical presence — meaning selected candidates and party offices — in Peshawar, Mardan, Swat and other districts. The PTI is also leveraging the extension of the Political Parties Act to Fata — home to seven National Assembly seats — for example, by campaigning in South Waziristan of all places. In both K-P and Fata, the PTI is taking advantage of the void left by an Awami National Party, dually bitten by its poor performance and a brutal terrorist campaign against its leadership.
What’s almost certain is that the next parliament will be hung. What’s highly probable is that the PPP and the PML-N will place in the top two. And what’s definitely possible is that the PTI will be a distant third.
So it’s not only the PTI detractors who will be in for a rude awakening. Party supporters who have been fed the fantasy of a PTI ‘clean sweep’ will be disappointed, if not devastated. But by coming in third, the PTI not only has a chance to decide who leads the next coalition government, but it also has an opportunity to improve the way Pakistani legislative politics operates.
In such a scenario, the PTI has three options: join the federal cabinet or the opposition, or remain non-aligned and oppose both the government and the official opposition. If the PTI joins a PPP or a PML-N-led government, it can follow the example of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, who generated a concrete policy programme with the Conservative Party as part of its agreeing to form a government together. Among the items on the PTI’s list should be: tackling corruption through a depoliticised body, reforming the judicial and police system from the bottom-up, increasing tax revenue, producing a jobs growth strategy for the youth and radically reducing poverty.
If the PTI joins the opposition in concert with one of the two parties, or operates in its own space, it can create a shadow cabinet and offer constructive alternatives to the ruling coalition’s policies. Indeed, the PTI can show that the opposition need not be friend or foe, but fiercely productive.
For the PTI to do all this, requires mastering the art of compromise and modifying its vocabulary. Parliamentary politics is a game the PTI, as a collective, has little experience in. For all its shortcomings, the PPP has managed to push through three parliamentary amendments and maintain an unwieldy coalition. There are lessons to be learned from the PPP’s successes.
The PTI also needs to prepare its supporters for a soft landing. The tsunami will most likely just be a really strong storm. But it can be an enduring, democratic current that erodes the decadence of Pakistani politics over time — in reality, a force far greater than a thousand tsunamis.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2012.
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