How a Fringe Pakistani Politician Is Using Obama's Campaign Strategies

Imran Khan is a long shot, but his platform of hope, change, and transparency sure sounds a lot like that of a certain 2008 U.S. candidate.
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Imran Khan addresses relatives of victims of a twin bomb attack in Quetta on January 13, 2013. (Naseer Ahmed/Reuters)

Late last year, Imran Khan was in Los Angeles, waiting to speak to an auditorium brimming with electrified Pakistani immigrants and first-generation Pakistani Americans at the University of Southern California. Following a rousing introduction, the former superstar cricketer and Pakistan's most promising political sensation took to the podium to a sea of applause and enthused chants. He embarked on his fundraising campaign with a personal narrative, his eloquent Urdu so drenched in poetic cadence that even his somewhat banal life advice left his enraptured audience feeling inspired.

When someone interrupted him several minutes in, asking him to switch to English, Khan obliged, transitioning with, "Usually people can speak Urdu fluently but still ask me to speak in English." The audience snickered at his jab, but the subtle disdain Khan expressed for Pakistan's political upper crust, who clamor to earn favor with the U.S., was not simply a wry aside but a reference to one of Khan's core political aspirations. Khan's revolutionary campaign, characterized by a call for unity, promises of sweeping change and innovation in outreach, adapts a formula that Americans were introduced to in 2008, with the swelling political rise of Barack Obama. Now, Khan is geared up to challenge President Asif Zardari, who completed his five-year term last month and has recast the tenebrous political landscape in Pakistan.

Khan's bold political platform provides sanctuary to those in Pakistan who have long associated government with the country's deteriorating state.

As head of reformist party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Khan has emerged as the political curveball and popular favorite for the PM seat. Khan's bold political platform provides sanctuary to those in Pakistan who have long associated government with the country's deteriorating state. As the opposition frontrunner to incumbent Zardari, Khan is selling "hope" and "change" to a multi-ethnic citizenry that's as jaded as many Americans were following the Bush era.

The Democracy Report

Bush's approval rating was 22 percent when he left office. Enter Barack Obama, a candidate who offered the American public what they so desperately desired -- an agenda that embodied change. Obama marketed "change" in a fresh, edgy, indelible way by adopting "Yes We Can" as a slogan, branding his campaign with a sleek logo, and plastering the country with his iconic Hope poster.

The Pakistan that Khan takes center stage in has developed an appetite for change more voracious than that of even a pre-Obama U.S. Pakistani citizens are suffering from a government and infrastructure fraught with corruption at every level; a spiraling economy with a floundering currency and severe obstacles to economic growth; mob, gang, sectarian, tribal, religious violence and a rise in crime; ever increasing poverty; and a region afflicted with foreign drone strikes.

An annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment" report blasted Pakistan's current administration for hindering policy and tax reforms "because members are focused on retaining their seats in upcoming elections." Accordingly, Zardari's approval ratings have dipped to 14 percent recently, according to a Pew Center research poll.

Amid this atmosphere of despair, Khan has adapted a platform similar to Obama's "Hope" strategy to ensure that his boost in popularity has some shelf life. Khan has effectively implemented Obama's campaign language, with a few modifications to accommodate for the "enlightened Islam" that is central to his reform agenda- "Yes We Khan, Insha'Allah (God willing)." Promising to destroy the system of corruption, and leaving a trail of transformation in his wake, Khan has branded himself as the "tsunami." Far from being a foolproof slogan, the political tsunami that Khan describes his campaign as is a welcome destruction of the current order for Pakistanis.

Having long been a sideline politician cashing in on his celebrity athlete status, Khan has incrementally accrued credibility for his party and himself over the last decade, arriving at a pervasive, compelling message that appeals to a broad demographic that includes everyone from rural laborers in Waziristan to university students in Lahore and everyone in between.

In a country whose urban middle class is becoming increasingly wired, Khan's ability to connect to his varied fan base is loosely predicated on utilizing Obama's voter outreach template. New media revolutionized modern day campaigning in the U.S. and played a pivotal role for Obama in 2008. Khan's camp-- a conglomerate including foreign imports, a telecom executive, women and members from opposition parties -- has become incredibly web savvy, and PTI's presence in Pakistan's cyberspace is unparalleled.

PTI "media coordinator" Anila Khawaja has kept Khan's Twitter account, which enjoys more than half a million followers, active with frequent campaign updates and photos of rallies and appearances. While not exactly a gasp-inducing Twitter following, Khan's social media monopoly has tremendous impact in engaging voters in Pakistan, as well as non-resident Pakistanis, in an unprecedented way. Khan connects with voters directly through the Internet, as opposed to "pandering" to mainstream media outlets, which he shuns as corrupt.

Khan's Facebook page has nearly 700,000 likes and his videos on PTI's YouTube channel garner hundreds of thousands of views. By comparison, the current administration - Pakistan People's Party (PPP)- has 3,000 followers on Twitter and just over 40,000 likes on Facebook. Beyond tweets and status updates, Khan's team has capitalized on opportunities to engage people, organizing a Google+ Hangout, where Khan answered questions from people across the globe about the economy, the military, the U.S. and more. The event was the first of its kind in Pakistan and became a trending topic on Twitter.

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Uzma Kolsy is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, and Foreign Policy.

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