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Imran Khan: an Unlikely Candidate

January 24, 2008

Washington D.C. – Less than a month before the highly anticipated Pakistan’s general elections of February 18th, Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (the Movement for Justice), paid an official visit to Washington DC meeting with members of Congress, giving talks in think tanks around town and asking the US to withdraw its support to General Pervez Musharraf’s government, which he denounces as an obstacle to the development of meaningful democracy in Pakistan.

“This is the most critical junction in Pakistan’s history,” Khan said speaking to the public and the media at an event co-organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Asia Society in Washington DC. Imran Khan is a peculiar figure in Pakistani politics. Former cricket legend turned turned politician, in 1996 he founded the Movement for Justice with the purpose of advocating for the establishment of a truly independent judiciary system in a country tormented by pervasive corruption. “You can have elections,” he said on Thursday, “but you don’t necessarily have democracy.” An independent judiciary would, in Khan’s opinion, enforce the rule of law and guarantee that elections are free and fair.

At the time when the Movement for Justice was created, Khan saw Pakistan as lacking a serious system of checks and balance and accountability. He decided then to launch into a career in politics and initially viewed favorably the rise to power of General Musharraf hoping that he would be the one finally unleashing a new democratic era for Pakistan. “Two years later we realized that instead of bringing real democracy, we had now an even bigger sham than the one before,” Imran Khan said in Washington DC denouncing the chronic weakness of the national parliament vis à vis the executive; “The parliament was constantly being bypassed in decision-making and was always only allowed to discuss exclusively the issues that the military establishment selected.”

With the elections approaching Imran Khan feels Pakistan’s own existence is at stake. President Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November suspending the constitution and shutting down independent media. He also put sixty national judges under house arrest, including Iftikhar Muhammad, the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. In their place General Musharraf appointed his own nominees, supportive of his attempt to remain in power for yet another term as the country’s President.

As a reaction to this crackdown, and following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who had just returned from exile to run for the elections, Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice is part of a coalition that has decided to boycott the upcoming vote, unless the government agrees to return full power to the judiciary; “The judges should be reinstated and they should then supervise free and fair elections,” Khan repeated throughout his talk in Washington DC. His fear is that, if there is no immediate effort to nurture renewed trust among the people of Pakistan towards the country’s political system, the results of an election that people will deem rigged may not be accepted and the situation may degenerate further.

As for the role of the US, Khan compares the American approach to Pakistan to what happened in Iran in the 1970s. Washington supported then the corrupted and unpopular leadership of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and in doing so it pushed the disenchanted people of Iran in the arms of the extremists and their leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

Imran Khan came to Washington precisely to ask the United States to avoid repeating past mistakes. While the current Administration continues supporting the leadership of President Musharraf, a poll conducted recently by the National Republican Institute (a group affiliated with the Republican Party and which promotes democracy abroad) found that the General’s popularity is plummeting and that 75 percent of Pakistanis would want to see him go while they also demand that the chief justice be reinstated.

The leader of the Movement for Justice met with the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and with Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, Dick Durbin, Patty Murray, Robert Casey and Tom Harkin. Khan invited Congress to embrace a new approach toward Pakistan. “It is very important that the people and the leadership in the US understand that the strategy of directly backing only one man or one party instead of supporting democratic governance as a whole is deeply flawed,” he said at CSIS.

The US should reassess its strategy towards Islamabad not only because the present one may be an obstacle to the emergence of meaningful democracy in Pakistan. Khan believes that Musharraf’s violent hand in fighting the emergence of Taliban power in the tribal areas to the southwest of Pakistan, backed by the US support, is overall detrimental to the War on Terror. “The political talibanization of the tribal areas,” Khan said on Thursday, “must be understood as a people’s response to the aggressive policies pursued by the government of Pakistan.” According to the leader of the Movement for Justice, Islamabad should rely on political compromise instead; “You can only win the War on Terror if you win the hearts and minds of the people…Whenever you try to suppress fundamentalism militarily it turns violent, and the strategy that is meant to isolate the terrorists only pushes people towards them.”

Despite a worsening of the security conditions, the resurgence of terrorism and the crackdown on the justice system, Imran Khan believes that “Pakistan is very vibrant and has potential. All we need is a system that works.” With the general elections approaching, Khan expressed with these words his hope for a brighter future, granted that Islamabad and Washington work together for democracy.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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