It would be a mistake to see Nawaz Sharif’s success in the Pakistani elections over the weekend as a loss for Imran Khan. In fact, the cricket star-turned-politician has gone from being a political nonentity to the government’s chief opposition. As the media focus on Sharif’s third term at the helm, they cannot underestimate the gains just made by Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf party.
Otherwise, the elections largely underscored what we’ve known all along: Sharif entered the historic elections with a clear advantage, and his Pakistan Muslim League party holds much sway in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab. An industrialist, Sharif’s leadership steered the building of the country’s extensive highway system; and more recently he launched the region’s first ever metro bus system– both highly popular initiatives.
So we need to be asking a different question: Given Sharif’s popularity, how did Imran Khan become such a force to be reckoned with?
The answer lies in a weak campaign by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PPP were named targets by the Pakistani Taliban for its secular stance. This led to a lackluster campaign in which the chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari–son of assassinated former prime minster Benazir Bhutto—was largely absent from the country. Speeches were relayed to constituencies via video link. And the PPP were right to be fearful: Just days before the election, the son of party faithful and former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was kidnapped in his own home town of Multan. He’s yet to be found.
On the other hand, the other two parties enjoyed a level of protection–ostensibly because of their soft stance on the Taliban and vocal protests against US drone attacks in the north west of the country. Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf party went one further by actively targeting urban youth and using social media to appeal to them, as well as Pakistani expatriates who flew home to vote. Then there was Khan’s persona; his years as a celebrity athlete helped him electioneer in a style more akin to rock concerts than political rallies.
But Imran Khan was never going to revolutionize Pakistani politics overnight. The country has been mired in political dynasties and military rule for too long for that to happen. And that’s precisely why his small gains should be seen as a significant success, finally breaking tradition and becoming a legitimate watchdog on the ruling party—something Pakistan can hardly take for granted.