Syed Hamad Ali: Provinces could propel Imran Khan

Imran Khan's support base is drawn from across society. Picture: Reuters
Imran Khan's support base is drawn from across society. Picture: Reuters
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Can a politician who lost a recent national election still bring to Pakistan a much-heralded revolution he had promised? That is the question Imran Khan must now answer following Nawaz Sharif’s election victory in May.

Tired of the Sharifs and Bhuttos dominating the country’s feudal politics for decades, many ordinary people attached a lot of hope to Khan, an outside candidate, as the man to tackle the country’s myriad problems, from terrorism to education to the economy. Although he didn’t win majority seats on a national level, his Tehreek-e-Insaf party gained enough to form a regional coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, located in the troubled north-west on the border with Afghanistan.

KPK is a tough province, and thus a test case for Khan to prove his mettle. One significant early development has been the budget his party announced last month: the amount allocated to education has been increased substantially, to close to 30 per cent of the total budget.

KPK is the province where schoolgirl and education advocate Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taleban last year, to worldwide outrage. Education is much-neglected by the state in Pakistan.

The former cricket star has also promised sports grounds across the province, with an emphasis on cricket, volleyball, squash and hockey. Such a policy is a novelty in Pakistan.

Accountability of those in power is another key pledge, as corruption is endemic in local politics. Khan has promised that every government contract, plus all the assets of ministers and senior officials, will be detailed on a website for public viewing.

And when the new chief minister of KPK, Pervez Khattak, travelled to a wedding feast in a state helicopter last month, he was informed by Khan that it was the last time he would ever do so. Khattak quickly apologised and paid for the fuel.

While every member of his party isn’t squeaky clean, the perception of Khan is that he is an honest man. This is one factor in why his support base is less ideologically restricted – it draws from both conservative and liberal circles.

Khan has claimed that in Pakistan’s history there had “never been so much rigging” as took place in the May elections. Following the results, his supporters held spontaneous protests in Karachi and Lahore and images and videos of alleged rigging captured on camera phones were broadcast on television and social media.

Khan has been urging the Supreme Court to take notice of irregularities, and to use fingerprint verification in four constituencies with particularly strong evidence of irregularities. The exercise could prevent fraud in future elections and increase the credibility of the whole process.

Another grave issue facing Pakistan is the energy crisis. Parts of the country are suffering up to 20 hours of power cuts a day in blistering heat. In recent TV interview, Khan said he would not only end the power shortage in KPK, but also that in five years’ time he hopes to be providing electricity to the rest of the country from the province’s hydro-electric generators.

If from this small provincial base his party manages to deliver on their promises, it could turn into an embarrassment for the national government – and give Khan a platform to move on to a bigger stage.