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Can social media propel 'rock star' politician Imran Khan to power in Pakistan?

Wajahat Khan / NBC News

Imran Khan, seated at right, prepares to take part in his - and Pakistan's - first ever Google Hangout.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In a country known for its constant chaos, nobody can make a crowd stop and listen quite like Imran Khan.

Whether commanding a rally of hundreds-of thousands in a Lahore park, a roundtable of experts in an Islamabad hotel or a garden of politicized housewives in a Karachi country club, Pakistan's legendary former cricket captain exudes charisma. Even his unfinished "peace rally" to protest hugely unpopular U.S. drone strikes - which Pakistani officials halted before it reached its destination in South Waziristan - earned him headlines around the world.

Khan, 60, is widely seen as one of the country's most popular politicians as well as its most eligible bachelor.  And if opinion polls are to be believed, he will play a key role in the formation of Pakistan's next government. 

But Khan is not business as usual for Pakistan.


He commands serious star power despite not belonging to the landed or industrial dynasties that have ruled the country since its birth in 1947. Nor is he part of the country's military, which has governed the Islamic Republic for more than three of its six and half decades. Instead, he shot to fame as a star of cricket, a game that has a near-religious following in Pakistan.  On his way, he married - and divorced - glamorous British socialite Jemima Goldsmith.

He does not appear to court the traditional media, although it certainly chases him. 

The waiting list for television anchors and reporters hoping to snag a one-on-one with Khan is around two months long. He has written-off Pakistan's rambunctious mainstream and privately owned media as "prone to being corrupt" and "marginal to vested interests."

So what is the secret to Khan's success in projecting his political agenda across Pakistan?  In short, it's what he calls the "democratic and incorruptible" forces of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

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Khan's messages -- which almost always hinge on his apparent anger over the United States' demands on Pakistan -- make him the country's most-followed presence on Facebook and Twitter.  He is particularly popular among Pakistan's wired urban youth.  But while Khan's popularity online cannot be contested, whether it will translate into victory at the ballot box remains the big question. 

'Taliban Khan'
Critics contend that Khan is simply bitter about criticism he's received from established members of the media.  In particular, journalists and commentators question the former cricket star's popular but difficult to implement policies -- an end to official corruption within 90 days, cessation of all hostilities with militants, halt to CIA drone attacks and rejection of American aid.

Especially since the assassination attempt on 14-year-old education activist Malala Yousufzai, Khan's refusal to wholeheartedly condemn all militancy and terror has prompted his critics to call him soft on terror. 

While Khan's ideas have earned him the teasing but telling moniker "Taliban Khan" from members of the Westernized elite, they have proved wildly popular online.  

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There is the official Facebook page for Khan (with about 487,000 'likes'). Its fans outnumber his party's official page by more than 100,000 members.

The "We Want Imran Khan to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan" page also has more than 525,000 likes.

Wajahat Khan / NBC News

Badar Khushnood (foreground), a consultant with Google Pakistan, and a small army of Imran Khan's advisors and assistants tweet, shoot and text their way through the Hangout.

Khan also has about 400,000 followers on Twitter -- along with several assistants handling his and attached accounts -- tweeting rants, pictures and quotes from Pakistan's founders around the clock.

 

If social-media popularity equaled election results, Khan would already have a few terms under his belt.  In fact, so pervasive is his online persona that his detractors have branded him a virtual politician.  

However, while Khan might be the country's most popular political figure, he is hardly the Islamic Republic's most powerful; he boycotted the last election and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party, has no presence in a parliament.

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Wired, but do they vote?
Whether Khan can translate online support into victory at the ballot box is highly contested. (When new elections will actually be held hasn't been decided although many expect them to be held in spring or summer 2013.) 

 

"Imran Khan's base, his core support, is urban, middle class and educated -- precisely the cohort that has access to the Internet and spends time online," Cyril Almeida, who pens one of Pakistan's most-read columns for Dawn newspaper, told NBC News. "Hence, his substantial online support. ... PTI is building a voter base starting from the social media."

 Almeida acknowledges that former President Pervez Musharraf -- who led the country from 2001 to 2008 and now lives in exile in London -- also has a substantial online following but "wouldn't win a local councilor seat if he stood for one."

"Imran is somewhere in between," Almeida said. "His rock star status online is wildly more exaggerated than his real-world support -- though he will win at least some seats come election time."

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Others, like Fahd Hussain, a primetime anchor at Waqt TV, which belongs to one of Pakistan's oldest and most conservatively aligned news conglomerates, says the Internet could still generate a Khan "tsunami."

"[The] social media support base of Imran should not be ignored," Hussain said. "It's massive and growing and creates political momentum."

Others question what online popularity will translate into, if anything.

Gibran Peshimam, the political editor of the Express Tribune newspaper, says that while Khan may be a heavyweight on the Internet, he is more of a lightweight offline.  

"The percentage of Pakistan's population that has access to the Internet barely breaks the double-digit barrier," he told NBC News. "In any case, the majority percentage of those who have this access to the Internet, and hence social media, is a non-voting sector. The well-to-do generally do not vote in Pakistan. They talk about voting, but barely any of them are even registered to vote."

"Large-scale support on the Internet in Pakistan does translate into numbers, given the youth bulge, but it certainly does not translate into large numbers -- unlike, perhaps, in the U.S.," he added.

Wajahat Khan / NBC News

Dr Awab Alvi is Imran Khan's social media guru. A part-time politico, Alvi is an Ivy-League trained orthodontist by day, and the brains behind the powerful outfit that is Khan's social media machine by night.

Echoes of Obama '08?
The comparison to the United States is a common one in Pakistan, and linked to the Khan camp's obsession with President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in which social media played a key role in fundraising as well as getting younger Americans out to vote. So-called Khanophiles constantly point to the Obama '08 template as one that can be replicated, with some qualifications and modifications, in the Islamic Republic.

Two such Khanophiles are Awab Alvi and Faisal Javed.

Alvi is a tall, soft-spoken and self-declared geek who signs his emails as BDS, MSc & TED Senior Fellow.

Although Alvi, is a University of Pennsylvania-trained orthodontist who says he does not hold any office in the burgeoning PTI, the 36-year-old's non-stop Twitter feed gives him away as Khan's constantly-connected social media wizard.  His user ID, Teeth Maestro, one of the best known in Pakistani cyberspace, hints at both his full-time hospital job in Karachi and his part-time political potency.

His blogs generate as much revenue as a successful small business, and the official site of the PTI that he helps administer often crashes because of the high traffic his online events generate.  Alvi says the PTI has a 25-strong social media team featuring "volunteers scattered all over the globe."

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Faisal Javed, 31, is a telecom executive by day and a PTI deputy secretary by political leaning. He spends Monday to Friday at the chic Islamabad headquarters of Telenor, leading the Scandinavian cellular giant's advertisement buying and content strategy for Pakistan.

Wajahat Khan / NBC News

Faisal Javed is Imran Khan's deputy information secretary and acted as moderator for the Google Hangout. Javed's full time job is as a telecom executive, but he moonlights as a politico.

 But his evenings and weekends are reserved for the PTI.  Javed, who opens rallies for Khan, is known nationally as Khan's "stage secretary," introducing him to crowds across the country. His easy confidence and broadcaster's voice make him one of the more prominent young faces of Khan's media-savvy corps.

Behind the scenes at Khan's first Google+ Hangout, the zeal to replicate Obama's PR accomplishments was obvious.  As soon as Khan rolled in (along with a small army of assistants, advisers and bodyguards), Alvi and his team adopted a very American, no-nonsense mood that is not typical of Pakistani culture.

They kicked out all people dubbed "non-essentials" and started what seemed like a haphazard pre-battle briefing.

"How many people are watching me?" Khan asked.

"Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions might be watching," said Alvi and his lieutenants speaking over each other.

Khan: "What does this mean, 'Google Hangout'?"

Alvi/his geeks: "People submitted questions, and then voted in the most questions. In three days, 15,000 questions were submitted and 13,000 questions were crowd-sourced via (text messages)."

Khan: "Is this live?"

Alvi/his geeks: "Yes! Obama has done it too! Ten people from all over the country and the world will interact with you. The questions and questioners have been chosen. All you have to do is answer them."

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The audio wouldn't connect for 20 minutes after the Hangout was scheduled, and even as the event went online, some anchors on Pakistan's infamous conspiracy-theory driven national television denounced the event as a "drama" which was "staged" and "not live," much to Alvi and his team's chagrin.  

A small Twitter/Facebook skirmish between the Khan camp and his detractors later ensued, where both sides argued over the "reality" of the Hangout. The online battle lasted about a week.

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But overall the Hangout event went pretty much as planned. Khan waxed eloquent about the economy, militancy, America, education and Pakistan's several other existential crises. He promised to raze the walls of governors' mansions, pledged to make them public libraries and explained progressive taxation to a female college student.

In what was perhaps the most important sign of success, the event caused #HangoutwithIK to trend on Twitter. But what really made political history in Pakistan was that the national conversation of the country was fully online and not broadcast on television and radio for the first time. 

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Later, Javed unwound with a Marlboro.

"You know why he did it? You know how he handled all those questions? Because he's neat and clean and has nothing to hide," he said.

What of the rural heartland?
Still, even if Khan's PTI wins seats in parliament on the back of his social-media campaign, he is still a long way from power, some analysts say. 

"The next step, to premiership, goes through the dusty, deceitful and a whole-lot-less-plugged-in territory of Pakistan's rural heartland," political editor Peshimam says.

Most of Pakistan's civilian power players have traditionally relied on the country's teeming rural areas for their support-bases.

Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, which leads the current coalition government, is entrenched in rural Sindh  -- the country's second-most populous province. Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) has always relied on, and thus come to dominate, the lush swathes of central and northern Punjab.

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While Khan is pushing hard to topple the de facto but unofficial two-party system by becoming a third force via social media, Pakistan remains a poor and rural-majority country where just 20 million of its 180-million people are connected to the Internet.

Wajahat Khan / NBC News

Members of Imran Khan's press corps at work.

"Several polls show that as a leader Imran Khan is very popular," says Raza Rumi, director of policy and programs at Islamabad-based think tank The Jinnah Institute. "(But) there are methodological problems with such surveys and often their urban bias has also been called into question.

"Khan will emerge as a political player in the next parliament but it would be premature to say what would be the strength of his party," Rumi added. "His huge presence on social media is linked to a substantial following, especially in the young segment of population. There is a strong relationship here. But to assume that Facebook or Twitter rankings will result in electoral gains across Pakistan would be wrong."

But Khanophiles like Javed, the telecom executive, aren't discouraged by such such sober assessments. 

"We can't ignore this medium.  There are two million of us [supporting PTI on social media]. And those two million have millions of friends and family members," he said during preparations for the Google+ Hangout session. 

A group of 32 American anti-drone activists will join a march to Pakistan's tribal areas, where U.S. strikes have killed thousands of people over the last eight years. NBC News Amna Nawaz spoke to some of them.

"And while you may be right again that those two million are largely in the cities, they are a degree or two away from spreading our message to the towns and villages. And that's good enough for me."

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