Imran Khan is Pakistan’s new captain. Will he deliver?

Pakistanis on July 25 elected Imran Khan as their new prime minister. Even though the complete results have not been declared, he made a victory speech rejoicing in the culmination of his 22-year struggle. His party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won 115 seats out of 272 directly contested seats in the lower house. With independents and smaller parties, Khan can easily form the government. 

The runner-up in the national elections has been former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML (N) that secured 64 seats in the National Assembly. Once a national force, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has been reduced to a regional party concentrated in the southern province of Sindh. PPP is the third largest party with 43 seats in the lower house. 

A number of controversies and allegations by political parties and sections of local and international media have dogged the elections. Recounts are being done. The future opposition is protesting and social media is abuzz with charges of “rigging”. While Khan has earned a major victory, this is not an auspicious start to his term in office. The legitimacy of elections will be questioned and a strong opposition in the parliament will not let this go easily. In fact, this would be not too different from what Khan himself was doing for the past five years —protesting against the results of 2013 elections which he claimed were “rigged” and “stolen” from the PTI. 

In 2013-18, Khan was an agitator and held at least three major sitins against Nawaz Sharif ’s government. Reportedly, he had some measure of support from the deep state which remained at loggerheads with the former PM Sharif. In fact, Sharif spelled trouble the day he decided to try Pakistan’s former dictator General Pervez Musharraf on “treason”. The two sides remained uneasy partners in government. Sharif survived all the street protests but the Panama leaks of 2016 (which indicated his family’s offshore wealth) and the subsequent petitions filed by Khan led to his ouster by the Supreme Court. Subsequently, Sharif was disqualified to hold a public office for life and sentenced. His daughter Maryam who emerged as a fiery heir apparent has also been convicted and jailed. 

In this polarised context, Election 2018 urges all the players — Imran Khan, Sharif and the military — to move on. The country has to address key challenges. First is the economic meltdown that has resulted in the free fall of the Pakistan rupee. Pakistan currency lost nearly 25% of its value in the last few weeks. There is a balance of payments situation, and the circular debt (that mounts due to the advance payments needed by private power plants) has gone out of hand. Second, in June, Pakistan was placed on the grey watch list by the Financial Action Task Force. While this was a result of the pressure put by the US, the country has to take a number of steps to reverse this decision as it has a bearing on Pakistan’s international transactions. Linked to this is the fate of active and inert militias within the country. 

Third, as the recent elections showed, the terrorism threat may have diminished but it is far from over. Internal security challenges are immense and the new government will have to immediately deal with them. Related to this is the fourth challenge concerning Afghanistan where Pakistan’s security interests are at variance with its long standing ally, i.e. the US. The list goes on. 

Imran Khan, as many commentators have already said, will wear a crown of barbed wire, for these challenges are both pressing and structural in nature. Khan has never held a public office and, therefore, his experience of governance is limited. His party ruled the northwestern province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the past five years and initiated some reform. Many efforts yielded result and that’s why PTI was re-elected from the province. But Pakistan with nearly 201 million people is a different story. It’s simply not an easy place to govern. 

Much has been said in the Indian and Western media about Khan as the puppet of the military establishment. This is a reductionist view as millions of Pakistanis voted for him under no one’s pressure. Like India and Bangladesh — the long-lost family of Pakistan — large sections of population find corruption unacceptable and destructive for their everyday lives. Additionally, Khan has no financial scandal attached to him. His clean image and crusade against corruption sell well and find resonance in the middle classes that control bureaucracy, much of media, the judges and even the officer class in the army. The irony is that all of these segments are beneficiaries of state largesse, privilege and pelf. Will Khan succeed in tackling them? 

Pakistan has spent more than half of its life under direct military rule and for the remaining time, the country has been governed by weak civilian governments. It’s only in the last decade that democracy has started to take root. As a young democracy, Pakistan will face the usual teething problems. This is not unique to Pakistan. 

What really matters is that a third consecutive elected government will be sworn into office. This is a departure from the historical trend and should be acknowledged as such. 


Published in The Economic Times – July 29, 2018: Imran Khan is Pakistan’s new captain. Will he deliver?

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