Cricket Star Khan Takes on Pakistan's Fading Political Dynasties

  • Family-run parties losing steam a decade after Bhutto’s death
  • Pakistan battles endemic graft, poor infrastructure, terrorism
Imran Khan

Photographer: Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg

A decade after the assassination of the Islamic world’s first female premier, Benazir Bhutto, her party’s struggles have opened the door for opposition leader Imran Khan to take on the dynastic political parties that have long ruled Pakistan.

Ousted twice from power in corruption scandals involving her husband Asif Zardari, Bhutto was killed at a rally on Dec. 27, 2007 when she returned from self-exile to contest elections after eight years of military rule. Her husband and son have since failed to boost the party’s fortunes.

Pakistan’s other main family-run party, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz headed by Bhutto’s former rival Nawaz Sharif, is also struggling. Widening external deficits and dwindling foreign reserves pose a threat to the economy, while tensions remain high with the country’s powerful military.

Sharif himself was ousted as prime minister in July after an anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by former cricketer Khan, who leads Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. This month Khan was cleared of false asset declaration charges that he called politically motivated, putting him in a strong position ahead of a national election in August.

A Jang Geo newspoll, conducted with Gallup Pakistan and Pulse Consultant and released on Nov. 24, found 34 percent of those polled would vote for Sharif’s party if elections were held today, followed by Khan’s party on 26 percent. Just 15 percent indicated they would vote for Bhutto’s party.

The court judgement lets Khan “head into 2018 burnishing his anti-corruption credentials, which will allow him to market himself as one of the few relatively ‘clean’ politicians,” Shailesh Kumar, a senior Asia analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a report last week.

Gloomy Outlook

Disenchantment with Pakistani politics and economic progress is common in a country that has long struggled to address endemic graft, poor infrastructure and insecurity. 

“No change has taken place -- all the existing political leaders are worthless,” said fruit merchant Tajmal Iqbal Bhatti, 55, based in Karachi near Bilawal House, the residence of Bhutto’s son and political heir. “No one really cares about the poor.”

The near-term outlook is gloomy. Pakistan devalued its currency this month and there’s increasing speculation that it will turn to the International Monetary Fund for its 13th bailout since 1988. And although China has committed $55 billion to Pakistan for much-needed infrastructure projects, foreign direct investment has almost halved in the last decade and tax avoidance is rife.

“I don’t think anything has structurally changed in Pakistan’s economy between 2008 and now,” Bilal Khan, a senior economist at Standard Chartered Plc, said at the Bloomberg Pakistan Economic Forum in Karachi last month. It wouldn’t take much “to jolt Pakistan.”

Punjab Patronage

Khan will have to weaken Sharif’s grip on the most populous province of Punjab, which is the key to power and where the party has a deep patronage network. Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, who is Punjab’s chief minister, will likely challenge Khan in the race to become prime minister.

Despite the pessimism, many acknowledge progress in areas such as security, which has improved following a three-year crack-down on insurgent groups.

“Pakistan is open to business and security has increased considerably,” said Rehman Chishti, a former adviser to Bhutto and now a U.K. lawmaker and trade envoy to Pakistan.

“2017 is very different from 2008,” Maheen Rahman, chief executive officer of Alfalah GHP Investment Management, said at the Bloomberg forum in Karachi. “It was a period of great instability, we were moving out of a dictatorship and into a democracy.”

Tarnished Families

Still, many voters want a break from the tarnished families. “This positive change will be better if Imran Khan comes to power,” said Shaeen Noorzada, a 20-year-old student picnicking with her family in Karachi’s Benazir Bhutto park.

Khan has courted right-wing religious officials and is also seen to be close to the military establishment, which he denies. Politicians have long negotiated power with the armed forces, which dominate foreign relations and have ruled the nation for much of its 70 years since independence.

The late Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Photographer: Adam Ferguson/Bloomberg

Back in 1967, Bhutto’s father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- who was executed by the military in 1979 -- formed the socialist Pakistan Peoples Party to dislodge the military-feudal hold on the nation. But since Zardari became president in 2008, the PPP have become a diminished force. Zadari conceded power to Sharif in the 2013 elections -- the country’s first democratic transfer of power -- and his tarnished reputation has seen the party retreat to its strongholds in the south.

“The PPP has been decimated,” retired Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., said in the city of Rawalpindi where both Bhuttos were killed. “He destroyed the image of the PPP.”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

Photographer: Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images

Zardari and Bhutto’s 29-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, now fronts the party. Yet his inexperience and his father’s unpopularity mean he’s unlikely to be a serious contender in next year’s vote. The PPP’s office didn’t respond to interview requests.

At a rally this month to commemorate the party’s 50th anniversary, Bhutto Zardari told the crowd: “This is our third generation which is struggling to uphold the flag of human greatness and a just society.”

— With assistance by Faseeh Mangi

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