Alas, the “clean sweep” Imran Khan promised never materialised. Rather than winning a majority of National Assembly seats, his party has come in third. But it would be a mistake to consider the electoral performance of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) a failure. The PTI has succeeded — just not in the way it planned.
The PTI is in a virtual tie with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for the second most National Assembly seats. It has won seats in three out of the four provinces, and six out of the 10 largest cities. It will form a provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). And perhaps, most surprisingly, the PTI has won the second largest share of votes in Karachi (roughly 18 per cent of the total).
The PTI’s gains in this election cycle do not make it a permanent fixture in Pakistan’s political landscape. Its seats could be easily washed away when the next elections take place — especially if the party fails to perform in K-P or if the PML-N does exceptionally well at the national level. With this in mind, I will identify three ways that will help the PTI to not only stick around but also thrive in a way that contributes to a better Pakistan.
One, the PTI should position itself as the defacto opposition in the National Assembly. The formal role will go to a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PTI should by no means do anything to obstruct that. But as it stands, the PPP lacks the capability to contribute to a meaningful policy debate on most issues. And it lacks credibility on the issue of accountability.
The PTI can set itself apart from the pack by forming something akin to a shadow cabinet, offering its own set of proposals for continued electoral reforms, expanding the tax net, and improving the judicial system. A shadow cabinet equivalent — with a paid, professional research staff — would improve the quality of parliamentary discussion in Pakistan and showcase the PTI’s capabilities within the corridors of power.
If offered, Imran should accept the position of chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. The post would give him an opportunity to tackle his pet issue, corruption, from the inside. But the PTI needs to make sure that its National Assembly contingent is not dominated by the captain. In particular, it should highlight its younger MNAs, such as Murad Saeed of Swat, giving them an opportunity to grow into full-fledged politicians who could carry the PTI into the future.
Two, the PTI must make K-P work despite the enduring challenge of terrorism. Khyber-Pakhtuknhwa has suffered not only from the scourge of terror, but also from poor planning and corruption. The PTI should focus on improving the province’s public education system, reforming the police and judiciary, and cleaning up the provincial capital, Peshawar, giving it a smart, affordable public transportation system. And though the PTI is reluctant to confront terror, terror will eventually confront it. The PTI must prepare contingencies for when its outreach to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan fails, its party members will become the targets of terrorists.
Finally, the PTI must reform and grow its party infrastructure. Intra-party elections must be held regularly. An assertive campaign to instil good behaviour in its online support base is necessary. A Naya Pakistan should preserve the traditional respect for women and elders that was common in the purana Pakistan. In between elections, the PTI should harness the strength of its rank and file — including its tabdeeli razakars (on-the-ground volunteers) and its giant pool of netizens — and build a public service volunteer corps. This will help maintain the loyalty and enthusiasm of its youthful base and direct their political consciousness towards efforts that serve the public good, such as combating illiteracy. A grassroots, youth-led social welfare team could allow the party to make inroads into rural parts of Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, Sindh and southern Punjab, where its presence has been weak.
The game is far from over for Imran Khan and the PTI. With a revised playbook, they can build upon their modest success in 2013, and position themselves for a bigger, national victory when the next elections take place.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2013.