Rana Bokhari, a 35-year-old attorney has been elected the leader of the Liberal Party in the Canadian province of Manitoba, making her the first person of South Asian descent to ever become party chief (as well as the youngest) in the state’s history. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants and Winnipeg resident defeated two men, Dougald Lamont and Bob Axworthy, in balloting over the weekend, succeeding another man, Jon Gerrard, who led the provincial party for the past 15 years. With her triumph, Bokhari will lead the Liberals in the next provincial election in 2016.
Canadian media reported that should she win that election, Bokhari would become only the second Canadian provincial premier of South Asian descent, after Ujal Dusanji of British Columbia who served in the early 2000s. “My focus is on going forward, getting the memberships and getting people more engaged, engaging the youth, engaging the old, engaging those people who have just been disengaged,” she said in her victory speech. “If we offer something new and something different, if we offer a new kind of politics, if we offer the hope and possibility that families like mine know is the soul of this province, then together we can change Manitoba.”
According to reports, Bokhari is a first-generation Canadian who was born in Winnipeg and raised on a poultry farm in the town of Anola in Eastern Manitoba. In 2000, her parents were forced to sell out and the family returned to Pakistan from 2002 to 2006. With little political experience, Bokhari has run several non-profits and fundraising events in response to global disasters, including floods in her native Pakistan, the earthquake in Haiti and famine in East Africa.
She faces long odds to become provincial premier. Bokhari addressed the paucity of South Asians in Canadian premierships in an interview with blogger Samuel Getachew that appeared in Huffington Post. “I don't dwell on the past. In our own province we have never had a visible minority or a woman as Premier, so there is potential for a lot of firsts with my candidacy,” she said. “My campaign is focused on the future and being the change we want to see. It is important that our political sphere is a good representation of our province's population. That means having more women in politics and it means having a Party that can better represent the different demographics of our province.”
However, Bokhari may have a hard climb towards the premiership, given that Manitoba politics has long been dominated by the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Conservatives. The Liberals are far behind the pack – indeed, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the party has only about 2,150 members (with less than one-third of them bothering to cast ballots in the poll that barely put Bokhari on top). In addition, of the 57 seats in the Manitoba legislature, only one is currently held by the Liberals.
“The fact is the Manitoba Liberal Party is pretty much nonexistent outside of Winnipeg, and not that much stronger inside the city,” said an editorial in the Free Press. “Getting it tuned up for the next election will be a massive undertaking. Significantly growing Liberal support should be Ms. Bokhari's No. 1 priority.” Royce Koop, a Canadian politics professor at the University of Manitoba, told the Winnipeg Sun that Bokhari’s triumph will not mean much. "My instinct is to say it probably won't make a difference," he said. "Third parties have a tough time breaking through.”
Bokhari is well aware of the urgency of expanding her party and establishing a higher profile. "We need to expand our membership by reaching out to those who have lost faith in our politics," she said at a convention in Winnipeg, reported The Canadian Press "Together we will build a modern party that is ready to compete, to win and to govern."
Still, Bokhari’s ascension is somewhat extraordinary given that South Asians are few and far between in the prairie province of Manitoba. According to a demography report by the University of Winnipeg, South Asians account for only about 2.5 percent of the provinces population as of 2011.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.