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Pakistan's cricket-playing revolutionary

Islamabad --

Pakistani politics these days is something of a feudal system, dominated by a tired collection of old-line parties and politicians -- with one notable exception: He's a charismatic former cricket star named Imran Khan, who talks like a Pakistani Robbespierre.

"Pakistan is like France before the revolution," he says. "We are at a historical crossroads. We can't go on this way anymore."

Khan makes a lordly revolutionary, presiding over a hilltop estate that overlooks Islamabad. He's still movie-star handsome at 57, and he discusses politics with the fervor of a man who, in addition to being the top cricketer of his generation, took a degree at Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Khan formed his political party, the Movement for Justice, in 1996, four years after he retired from cricket. Despite his celebrity, the party has been regarded by Pakistani analysts as a high-visibility flop, doing poorly in elections and gaining just one parliamentary seat.

Khan has made something of a comeback this year, organizing one of the most effective private relief efforts to help victims of July's devastating flood. His party has also done better in some recent local elections, especially among younger urban voters. In the barren Pakistani political landscape, he's one of the few players who rouses any excitement among people I've met here.

The Pakistani status-quo, by Khan's account, is the result of democratic political system that has little chance to develop since independence in 1947. Periods of democratic government, marked by corruption and mismanagement, alternated with years of military dictatorship.

Since the 1970s, the same two family dynasties have dominated politics: the People's Party of Pakistan, headed by the Bhutto clan, whose current chief, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected president after the assassination of his wife, Benazir; and the Muslim League, headed by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister whose family runs the heartland region of Punjab. Other parties are often little more than local Mafias, vying for power and patronage.

"Our political system never matured," argues Khan, and many independent analysts would agree with that assessment. Corrupt deals have kept the power brokers and political mafias in control. The military has remained a force of stability, but its heavy-handed oversight of the system has also checked the development of modern political parties and an independent judiciary.

Khan argues that a showdown is inevitable because this overburdened system can't pay its bills any longer. Tax collection is so bad that, by his account, government revenues are sufficient only to cover military spending and debt service. To finance its other activities, such as education, the government must borrow money.

"The country is bankrupt," he contends. "We can only save ourselves by changing. Otherwise we will collapse."

Khan's radicalism is least convincing when it comes to security issues. He argues that Pakistan must make a settlement with the Taliban and decouple itself from America's wars in Afghanistan and the tribal areas. When I ask whether this future Pakistan might not be at the mercy of Muslim radicals, as Iran was after its revolution in 1979, Khan insists that the extremists will retreat if they no longer can fulminate against America and its Pakistani "agents."

The cricketer, known for his lightning fast bowling, would certainly topple some wickets if his movement gained momentum. Asked how the Pakistani military would respond to his plans for truce with a terrorist enemy, Khan retorts that what the military needs most is someone who can pay their bills: "I'm the only one who can collect taxes."

Khan has been an ephemeral player in Pakistani politics for more than a decade, and he's unlikely to make a breakthrough now. But if not him, then someone else is likely to surface over the next several years to challenge the status quo. Looking at this country's political impasse, it's hard to disagree with Khan's basic premise that something's got to give.

By David Ignatius  | September 27, 2010; 1:18 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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