New Directions

The discreet charms of Pakistan’s middle classes

01 May 2013
Imran Khan’s PTI has found a constituency among pious, nationalistic, largely urban middle classes.

SEVENTEEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since Imran Khan first entered politics. The former cricket legend’s five-month old Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party suffered a seatless humiliation in the 1997 elections. “It was the charge of the light brigade,” Khan once told me, smiling at the memory. “Imran out for a duck,” his critics crowed. Five years later, Khan was the only man left standing at the crease, with all other members of his party failing, once again, to win their seats. And at the last election, in 2008, he was poised to win at least a few seats, but stayed in the pavilion, boycotting the polls.

This month, with Pakistan’s general elections scheduled for May 11, he looks set to make a breakthrough. Khan’s message, defined by his contempt for a venal political class, hasn’t changed, but it has finally found a constituency. The vast crowds he attracts are principally drawn from an increasingly assertive urban middle class. He has a notable following among sections of the elite, and some of the opportunist politicians he has lured from rival parties have brought their rural supporters with them, but this is the first time that a party with national ambitions has put the middle classes’ concerns at the centre of its platform.

Many are coming out on to the streets to demonstrate their support for the first time; many will be making a rare appearance in queues outside polling booths this month. Until now, Pakistan’s middle classes have remained on the political margins. Their numbers were too few, and their influence too little, to have an electoral impact. When members of the middle class joined politics, it was often in service of parties whose major sources of support came from other sections of society. Various branches of the Muslim League, for example, courted the business communities, whose voters ranged from small traders to wealthy industrialists. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that has just left office, began life as the political vehicle of the labour movement; it is now backed by the rural poor. Uniquely, the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has been a significant middle-class party since its founding in the 1980s, but it has been limited to that city and its large Urdu-speaking community.

Omar Waraich  has covered Pakistan since 2007, writing for TIME, the New Yorker, The Independent and others. He is a former SAIS-John Hopkins International Reporting Project Fellow.

Keywords: politics Imran Khan Pakistan Punjabi feudalism middle-class