As the dust settles on Pakistan’s elections, Nawaz Sharif is gearing up to lead the country for a third time, and experts in Washington seem to be feeling cautiously optimistic. Many US-Pakistan experts expressed relief that Sharif won over Imran Khan, weighing Khan’s proposed hardline policy with the US and his lack of foreign policy experience in contrast to Sharif. At the same time, analysts realize that the dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship will change under Sharif’s administration, as he will be more likely to push back against US demands than the People’s Party. This new dynamic will require the US to pursue a tactical relationship that is cognizant of both the shared and dissimilar interests of the two countries, potentially leading to greater stability.
The Tahir-ul-Qadri show appears to have ended as quickly as it began. After brief talks with the government, a five-point agreement was signed and both sides declared victory. In fact, in many ways it seems that almost everyone came out a winner – Dr. Qadri got the government to agree to give him some input in who will serve as caretake Prime Minister; the PPP-coalition government skillfully defused a potentially messy situation not through force, but through compromise; and the PML-N did not hijack the demonstration or exploit it for short-term gain, but emphasized the importance of following the Constitution and the democratic process. The only group that really gained nothing was Imran Khan. The question is, did the events of the past week actually render him irrelevant?
Over the past few years, Imran Khan has spent significant time and money trying to transform his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), from a one-man show to a national political player. His mammoth rallies in 2011 promised to do just that. But even at the time, Michael Kugelman saw this as potentially peaking too soon.
Kugelman had an important point. Elections were not expected for almost two years, and there’s a chasm of difference between building excitement about a candidate and actually forcing early elections. And as every political professional knows too well, time management is essential to a successful campaign – with too little time you can’t effectively engage voters; with too much you run the risk of losing their interest.
By coming out so strong so early, Imran Khan took a big gamble. True, he needed the time to not only gather support but to demonstrate that he was a legitimate contender. Politicians at the level of Javed Hashmi and Shah Mehmood Qureshi weren’t going to join PTI unless they had significant reason to believe that it had a chance in national elections. But with so much time before the current administration’s term comes to an end, there was a real risk that something could go wrong or that people would lose interest.
A few months ago, Michael Kugelman revisited his 2011 thesis, suggesting that Imran Khan was “taking some time out to rethink his problematic political strategy and platform.” While Khan was thinking, though, Tahir-ul-Qadri was preparing to act. The Canadian cleric arrived in Pakistan not years, but months before elections were expected. His timing was impeccable.
While Qadri was leading his supporters on a march to Islamabad, Imran Khan was forced to decide if he was going to join Qadri’s march – as a supporting actor. In the end, Khan chose to try to support Qadri’s agenda without actually joining his action.
We are not joining the march by Dr Qadri because until caretaker govt is formed it is premature. However what he is saying is our agenda too
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) January 14, 2013
Khan’s Tweet betrays him, though. Qadri’s agenda was about who had a say in choosing the caretaker government. If that was Imran Khan’s agenda, as he claimed, the march would have to come before the formation of the caretaker government otherwise their demands would be moot.
From the sidelines, Khan held a press conference and issued demands of his own – including that President Zardari resign immediately; that the Election Commission of Pakistan take notice of “pre-poll rigging” in the form of “distributing laptops and through the Benazir Income Support Programme”; and that the sitting Prime Minister be arrested. But by this point, hardly anyone was paying attention to Imran Khan. Tahir-ul-Qadri was the man of the hour.
Two days later, Tahir-ul-Qadri achieved what Imran Khan couldn’t achieve in two years – he got to government to agree to a specific timeline and set of reforms that would help shape the coming elections. Most importantly, Tahir-ul-Qadri – whose Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party has exactly zero elected seats in parliament – managed to get the extraordinary concession of a seat at the table in the discussion of who will lead the caretaker setup.
Today, Reuters reported that PAT is considering contesting elections after sitting them out in 2008. Despite turning out an estimated 50,000 people to his protest, however, it is unlikely that Qadri has the electoral support to present much of a threat to the PPP or PML-N’s entrenched vote bases. But Qadri may be able to present a significant threat to PTI by splitting the protest vote.
In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and after the events of the past week, some of Imran Khan’s supporters may see in Tahir-ul-Qadri a more viable vehicle for their reformist agenda. That Qadri’s Minhaj-ul-Quran is aligned with a moderate, sufi-informed school of Islam also gives the PAT leader religious credentials without the accusations of being a Taliban sympathizer.
Whether or not Tahir-ul-Qadri does decide to contest the elections, however, it remains to be seen if Imran Khan can recover from a week in which he was relegated to the sidelines during an event that capitalized on what were supposed to be his two major strengths – the ability to mobilize a large number of people, and public desire for a new choice in politics. Tahir-ul-Qadri may have come to Islamabad looking to end the political careers of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, but as the dust begins to settle, it looks like Imran Khan may be the one who stands to lose.
Any press might be good press for aging rock stars and actors, but not for politicians. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan is learning that lesson the hard way following a statement earlier this week that seemed to suggest he was opposed to reserved seats for women in Pakistan’s parliament.
Speaking on Sunday at a women’s rights seminar organized by PTI, Khan reportedly told the audience that:
“Legislators in assemblies are representatives of the people. How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections, but political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”
The immediate and unintended effect of Khan’s remarks was to unite parliamentarians across party lines – against him. Women in parliament were quick to respond, calling Khan’s remarks “highly prejudiced, biased, discriminatory and alarming.”
Khan later clarified his original statement, explaining that what he really meant was that women should compete in special elections for reserved seats, though he did not explain how that would work considering his earlier claim that “in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.”
The clarification, however, did not stop the outpouring of responses from women concerned that their current level of representation was under attack.
Bina Shah, a Pakistani author and journalist warned that “forcing an already tiny pool of qualified women to compete against one another for a small number of seats will damage the gains that women are making in our fragile democracy,” and Dr. Farzana Bari, Director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad noted that Khan’s remedy, while possibly well meaning, overlooked the historical context of women in Pakistan’s political history.
Imran Khan must understand that women’s formal involvement in politics does not automatically lead to their substantive representation. Rather, their ability to effectively perform and represent women’s interests depends on the larger context of democracy; how they enter the political arena and to whom they are accountable. The PTI is absolutely correct in suggesting that political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions. However, he should not forget that political parties in this patriarchal socio-economic set-up and as gatekeepers have deprived women in general, and female party workers in particular, for the last 65 years from attaining decision-making positions.
This is not the first time that Imran Khan’s remarks about women’s rights have raised eyebrows. Speaking to reporters last year, Khan offered confusing and seemingly contradictory statements about whether he believed women should be required to follow a strict dress code in public. And in 2006, Imran Khan campaigned against a Protection of Women’s Rights Bill which he claimed was intended “to introduce a made-in-Washington Islamic system in the country.” The bill amended the infamous Hudood Ordinance promulgated by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq which criminalized adultery and made rape victims liable to prosecution for adultery if they could not produce four male witnesses.
The charismatic cricket hero has made an expansive media campaign central to his party’s election strategy. With national elections anticipated in just a few months, Imran Khan would like to keep his name in the press. But the PTI chief is learning a hard lesson this week: When the cameras are on, anything you say can, and will, be used against you in an election.
With general elections expected early next year, Thursday’s “by-election” for the National Assembly seat vacated by former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was watched closely as a bellwether for what a post-2013 Pakistani government will look like. Based on the results of Thursday’s vote, it may look a lot like the present government.
The agreement to reopen the ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Afghanistan will result in short-term gains for both the US and Pakistan, but does not represent a fundamental change in bilateral relations. Richard Hoagland, Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy in Islamabad, described the status of relations after the apology as resumption from the point where they have been left prior to the Salala incident last November.
While Sec. Clinton’s apology did not result in a radical transformation, it did open a way forward. Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, characterized the agreement as validating the path of diplomacy over confrontation, and Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, acknowledged that there is “a long road ahead,” but expressed hope that “both sides can use this opportunity to build a path to durable ties.” , Unfortunately, building that path will not come without resistance.