On tour with Imran Khan, Pakistan's wildcard candidate

With Khan laid low by an accident at a rally, Samira Shackle reports on his campaign so far.

It’s 7pm on a hot Sunday evening and I’m standing at a barbed wire barricade. Behind me is crowd of disgruntled but enthusiastic Imran Khan supporters, and in front of me some very uncooperative policeman. I’m in Faisalabad, Pakistan, trying to catch Khan on his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan.

In the preceding eight days, he has appeared at more than 50 jalsas (rallies) across the country, travelling by helicopter so he can visit up to three or four – sometimes more – sites in a day. These barnstorming rallies are the cornerstone of his campaign. Khan, with his celebrity status, charisma, and huge personal fan base, knows that he is the main attraction of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and he’s making sure he gives the people what they want.

As Khan zooms around the country, his staff are trying, as best they can, to keep up by road, which is no mean feat given the huge distances in Pakistan. On the four hour drive from Islamabad to Faisalabad, his team tells me how security has got tighter and tighter over the course of the campaign. For this particular rally, we’ve had to submit our names and other details to the organisers to facilitate backstage access.

But that information isn’t doing us any good with the police, who seem to be enjoying the power trip. We can see the stage gate, which is about 30 metres from the barbed wire. “No-one goes through without a security pass,” says the policeman, smugly. We try to explain that our passes are at the gate, if someone could just go and check our names, but they are having none of it. The senior PTI workers I’m with are unimpressed, to say the least, but their status is doing nothing to budge the police.

Suddenly, there is a kerfuffle. A man has broken through the side of the barricade and is making a run for it to the gate. People are shouting after him but he’s just a retreating back, like the Roadrunner, cutting a shape through the line of armed security guards. “Who is that?” I ask. The reply comes: the local candidate, who has effectively had to break into his own rally.

The security last Sunday may have been over-zealous, but it is with good reason. According to the Interior Ministry, Khan is high up in the “top five” targets for terrorists, with only Nawaz Sharif, current electoral frontrunner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), facing a greater risk.

While members of the media tend to be on the stage with Khan rather than in the crowd, it’s probably one of the least safe places to be. He is one of the only politicians who refuses to address the crowds from behind a bulletproof glass, although in a concession to security, he has taken to wearing body armour under his trademark salwar kameez. Khan’s frenetic road show across the country has made media access very difficult; journalists have no option but to join on the campaign trail where they can and fight through his army of close supporters to grab 10 minutes with him before he helicopters to his next event.

As it has played out, it was not terrorists that struck Khan down but an unfortunate accident. At a rally in Lahore last night, he fell 10 feet as he was being lifted onto the stage. Luckily, Khan is not in a serious condition, though he is reportedly in considerable pain due to injuries to his skull and back. Images and videos of the incident instantly beamed around the globe. There is a sense of pathos that Khan has been stopped in his tracks, so near the conclusion of his momentum-building tour. In almost every area, the crowds and the energy really have been impressive.

The doctors have advised a week of bed rest. Tomorrow’s huge rally in Islamabad, which was supposed to be the climax of a hectic campaign, will go ahead – but Khan will address the crowds by video link.

This being Pakistan, home of the conspiracy theory, many people are speculating that “external forces” contributed to Khan’s “accident”, and that someone caused it deliberately to sabotage his campaign. Clearly, watching the video, this is absurd. After all, Pakistan is hardly known for its stringent health and safety standards.

More importantly, Khan’s accident may have brought an early end to his rousing public appearances, but it is unlikely that at this stage, it will make much difference. Sharif remains the frontrunner, and Khan remains the wildcard candidate: victory would be a surprise, but it is not totally inconceivable. As Khan said from his hospital bed, in a TV statement released just hours after his fall, it is now up to the voters.

Khan speaks from his hospital bed. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution