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.

Online popularity, however, by no means guarantees votes. Voter turnout is low in the country, and a majority of Pakistanis, including crucial voters in rural areas, don't have direct access to the Internet. Still, as the ultimate social media shark, Khan is making political history in Pakistan.

Whether Khan's fans will show up to the polls is yet to be seen, but they are definitely showing up in the streets, and in staggering numbers. Khan's modified Obama Method has not only provided a vehicle to broadcast his message to his electorate but an ambitious progressive agenda to unite and mobilize them. Tens of thousands of supporters have swarmed to Khan's PTI campaign rallies and to his anti-drone peace march in the dangerous Taliban-controlled region of South Waziristan. In a turning point in Khan's campaign, more than 100,000 people gathered at an October 2011 rally in Lahore, and then again in Karachi later that year. And in a rally for a "Naya" (new) Pakistan on March 23, at least 150,000 supporters assembled at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore.

Pakistan's despondent voters hope that, just as Obama's groundbreaking pledges effused euphoric relief for American voters, Khan's bold promises are a remedy to Pakistan's current ills. In a country where public officials have become rich at the expense of their country, Khan promises transparency in government finances and says he will mandate that politicians publicly disclose their wealth and assets. Where every institution and level of government is rife with corruption, Khan promises to rid the government of corruption in 90 days and halt the foreign aid that he feels bolsters shady dealings. Where hundreds of civilians have died from U.S. drone strikes in the north, and Khan promises to put an end to the attacks. In a response to a question from the L.A. audience, Khan said:

"Drone strikes are being done with the complicity of the Pakistani Government. They are completely counterproductive. It is creating more anti-Americanism, turning more people towards the militants, and is against all humanitarian laws. We will convince the U.S. government not to launch drone attacks and leave it to us. A sovereign government will take responsibility of ensuring there be no terrorism from Pakistan's soil."

the seething discontent many have for the current administration has catapulted Khan and his Obama-esque spirit of change from the political periphery into the spotlight.

Despite his command of English and charismatic politicking, it was evident in his L.A. appearance that Khan lacks the storytelling finesse of a seasoned politician. His seemingly absolute, simple solutions to the very complex, embedded issues Pakistan faces have drawn the ire of many critics and skeptics, who feel that the grand promises are indicative of Khan's political naiveté. They feel that even if he or members of his party are elected to power, their vows will remain unfulfilled. While Khan has gained enough popular support to be a serious contender, many feel that he is an amateur politician and an artless diplomat, and is simply not equipped to make real change while in office. His lofty promises may resound more as a rallying cry and impetus for revolution than a policy agenda.

To the West, Khan's progressive platform has some gaping holes-some feel he's too soft on the Taliban and that he champions unwise anti-American rhetoric.

"How can you be anti-West? West is geography. I'm not anti-West- when you oppose a government's policies, it does not mean you are anti-government," Khan said, addressing the accusation. "We're still suffering from the colonial hang up where the slaves were not allowed to object to imperial policies. I'm afraid I've never agreed with the U.S. War on Terror and I will never accept it. It's anti-humanity."

During an extended Q&A session following the fundraiser, Khan spoke about items on his domestic to-do list: plans to restructure institutions and infrastructure, spur economic growth, reform the legal system and enact a policy to provide legal aid, depoliticize bureaucratic institutions, increase education for women and accessibility to family planning resources, institute policies to enforce livable wages, and invest money in policing to reduce extortion and improve public safety. The scale of Khan's ambitions may put them beyond his reach, but some of his ideals are manifesting themselves in his campaign.

Khan has propagated his campaign as a movement for change and has consistently advocated for reform. His supporters, especially the youth, see his political agenda and their role in civic engagement through a prism of social activism. Khan has employed the expertise he gained as a philanthropist to pioneer large-scale political fundraising in Pakistan to sustain his campaign, and PTI recently held intra-party elections to demonstrate their allegiance to transparency, fair elections, and moral politics.

Khan has several roadblocks ahead of him, but the seething discontent many have for the current administration has catapulted Khan and his Obama-esque spirit of change from the political periphery into the spotlight. He may be a long shot,but tsunami Khan is an undeniable force to be reckoned with. Khan promised, "Nothing, no political party, no one can stop Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) from sweeping the elections, inshaAllah."

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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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