Like a deer caught in the headlights, PTI voters are frozen in action by the competing set of ideals they believe in. While they’re dissatisfied by what this government has delivered so far, they want to give Imran Khan an honest chance for the next five years.
Much like Trump voters, they feel the corrupt political media is bent on delegitimising their vote against the status quo by ganging up against Imran Khan, which forces them to defend the party aggressively in public even though they have sharp reservations in private. Through off the record conversations with PTI’s core voters and workers, including sitting ministers, I’ll try to share a pulse check on the party base’s feelings.
Here’s a quick tease of how they’re viewing the PTI government’s performance so far: they’re thrilled by foreign policy wins, willing to be patient on the economy, disappointed by progress on accountability, angry about too many compromises with the boys, delighted by Ehsaas and frustrated by the party’s inability to control its own governance narrative.
For all their Twitter micro-aggressions, PTI’s voter is not afraid to speak up and disagree with the party line. Unlike typical ideological supporters, they proactively share their limitations to the cult worship of Imran Khan. “We’ll stand with him until he’s fighting for tabdeeli and will only vote for him again if he delivers,” shared one voter in Karachi. Bhutto might be alive even now but Imran Khan’s party will survive based on actual delivery.
The theory of change or deal with the devil — depending on your political leanings — was that the ideological voter was willing to enter the electable wing of the party to get into power, which would enable them to pursue their reform agenda. The theory was, once in power, the PTI would prioritise their ideological agenda. Two things put a stinker on their plans. First, the economy was worse than they expected and sucked all their political capital to fix. Second, the governing majority that the PTI has is so slim that the swing wing of the party frequently serve as circuit breakers any time the party wants to pursue an ambitious reform agenda which threatens the status quo (for example, coalition partners in Punjab wanting control of the police postings in their constituencies).
In this case, the internal debate for a PTI voter is similar to what Imran Khan’s debate with himself would be. What is the purpose of my political movement? I cannot make a difference without being in power but what if I’m unable to make the difference I want even while being in power. Should I hang on to power and bring incremental challenges to the status quo? If the status quo is intent on bringing me down, should I go down fighting for my reform agenda versus my seat?
Today, PTI’s ideological voter is willing to stick with Imran Khan because they might as well give him a chance. He’s sincere, not personally corrupt and can challenge the status quo. They’re okay with incremental change despite preferring a bolder reform agenda. But if the status quo tries to overthrow the government through shady deals, they want him to go down fighting for tabdeeli instead of leaning on the shoulders of the electables.
Ironically, these young ideological voters are Imran Khan’s biggest gift to Pakistan. This recently politicised generation will continue to produce and support leaders who challenge the status quo long after Imran Khan is gone. The only question is: will he be remembered as their first political martyr or the first man to let them down?
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2020.