The likelihood that Imran Khan, a former playboy and cricketing hero with zero experience of government, will become Pakistan’s next prime minister marks a radical departure for a politically and religiously conservative country dominated for decades by the wealthy Bhutto and Sharif family dynasties.
But the projected success of Khan’s upstart populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in winning most seats in the national assembly was overshadowed before the final results were declared by furious claims from rival parties of “massive” vote-rigging by the army. The opposition’s unanimous rejection of the outcome spells trouble ahead.
Khan’s supporters will hail his achievement as the dawn of a new age, symbolising the end of politics-as-usual and the perceived elitism, cronyism and corruption associated with Shehbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s party (PPP).
Khan promised a fresh start, appealing in particular to younger people among the 106 million voters. But the former national cricket team captain will have his work cut out to convince Pakistan as a whole that he is a worthy, honest and credible winner. Independent Pakistani and EU observers expressed concerns about fairness and media freedom during the campaign. After numerous complaints about delays and irregularities at army-supervised polling stations, their verdict, due on Friday, is awaited with anticipation.
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Also known as the Justice party, it is led by the former cricketer Imran Khan, and has had some success at provincial level but has never been able to convert it into national power. Khan has been accused both of lacking a coherent political philosophy and of sympathising with extremists. He has described the Taliban’s fight in Afghanistan as a holy war, and accused “liberals” who support Nato’s war on the group of being “thirsty for blood”.
Hopes to win control of parliament again, even though its leader, Nawaz Sharif, is in prison for corruption. Tried and sentenced in absentia, he returned to the country this month to serve his sentence, hoping to revitalise the campaign before the election.
Now led by Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, the party is focusing on its economic success and promises of energy and infrastructure investment from China. However, efforts to increase tax revenues have faltered.
Led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The party lost ground after Benazir was killed in 2007 but the family name still carries considerable weight. The third-generation leader appears to be playing a long game, rebuilding support in its heartland with an eye on future elections. If it does well in this vote, the PPP could potentially serve as a junior partner in a coalition.
Even assuming the results are eventually accepted, Khan must hit the ground running if he is to stamp his authority on a divided nation that is also one of the world’s most impoverished and unstable states. He will almost certainly have to form a coalition to obtain a majority. Possible partners, such as the newly enfranchised, hard-right Islamist parties, are potentially troublesome.
Polling was marred by terrorist violence in Quetta and elsewhere – an ongoing problem in a country that gave shelter to Osama bin Laden and where the definition of what constitutes terrorism is frequently blurred. Khan’s pledge to clamp down on endemic corruption is not one that can be delivered overnight. Nor is alleviation of chronic poverty.
Pakistan’s rapidly expanding economy appears to be heading for a fall, undercut by falling currency reserves and repeated devaluations of the rupee. Khan says fixing it is his top priority. Economists suggest another IMF bailout is unavoidable unless China stumps up new loans – an option with it own set of drawbacks, given worries about Beijing’s overbearing presence and strategic ambitions.
If left to his own devices, Khan’s success could presage a big shift in international relations. His fierce criticism of US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and hostility to Washington’s regional policies may exacerbate existing bilateral strains. Donald Trump cut US aid earlier this year over what he called Pakistan’s support for terrorists. Yet many in Pakistan are equally wary of China’s stifling embrace.
But Khan’s biggest political challenge, should he succeed in forming a government, is none of the above. It comes dressed in neatly pressed uniforms and polished boots. Pakistan’s powerful military, otherwise known as “the establishment”, has ruled Pakistan directly for half of its 71-year history. At other times, it has covertly manipulated elected civilian leaders, occasionally deposed them, or in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, hanged them.
Supporters of Nawaz Sharif, the jailed former prime minister and Shehbaz Sharif’s brother, say the real reason he was forced out of office last year was not financial wrongdoing but his refusal to kowtow to the army, his erstwhile sponsors. Opponents claimed before the poll that Khan was the military’s preferred candidate, because he was neither a Bhutto nor a Sharif and because, lacking authority and experience, he could more easily be forced to toe the military’s line.
“The [military’s] strategy for control this time has centred on giving Khan’s PTI, a few smaller political parties and a large number of independent candidates a free hand, while making it difficult for the PMLN, and even the PPP, to campaign,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, before election day. He noted in Foreign Policy magazine that the courts had disqualified a large number of PMLN candidates, military intelligence had intimidated others into backing Khan, independent reporting was curtailed, and religious extremists previously designated as terrorists were allowed to run for office. About 371,000 troops were deployed on election day, allegedly to ensure the poll went the way the generals wanted.
“The Pakistani military obviously wants a civilian facade in the form of an elected government that follows dictates on policy toward India, Afghanistan, jihadi terrorism and relations with China and the US. It does not want a genuinely popular civilian politician in power, backed by an electoral mandate, and certainly not one that might alter the country’s trajectory,” Haqqani said.
Khan’s most pressing task is to turn the tables on the generals and vanquish the suspicion that he will be a puppet who does their bidding. Given his lack of a convincing national mandate, his opportunistic policy platform, the daunting scale of Pakistan’s problems and the unreliability of many of his fair-weather allies, he may struggle to make a difference.