The international media has produced reams on Pakistan’s new Prime Minister to be Imran Khan; transformed from international playboy cricketer to devout Sunni Muslim who supports harsh blasphemy laws and anti-women legislation. Much has also been written as to why we should expect major changes from Pakistan’s new prime minister, with his powerful anti-corruption rhetoric, sweeping aside the old feudals and industrialists who have dominated the leadership of Pakistan’s political parties to date. As I argue, these expectations are misplaced. A lot of the coverage misunderstands his background.
The manner of his election alone should give us pause for thought. It is undeniable that there is a large swathe of the population who find Khan’s anti-corruption rhetoric and demands for a “Naya” (new) Pakistan persuasive.
The former ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) government had undoubtedly been tarnished by the corruption scandals affecting former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (among others). However, as I wrote for The Conversation, these elections were not a level playing field (as has subsequently been confirmed by the European Union Observation Mission).
The legal process pursued against Sharif, while lauded by some Pakistanis as a welcome accountability exercise, conceals the fact that the judicial process was selectively applied and politically motivated. The 10-year conviction of Sharif deprived the PML-N of its star campaigner in the days before the election.
In addition, the media was subject to self-censorship. Reporters were abducted in the run-up to the election and Geo TV was removed from the air until it changed its editorial line. Editors have spoken about the pressures their staff have come under from the intelligence services, and the distribution of the English language Dawn newspaper was curtailed.
Finally, a large number of so-called “electables” (local candidates with resources to win parliamentary seats) were allegedly pressured by the intelligence services to defect from the PML-N, reducing the party’s chances even further.
After such a background to the elections, known locally as pre-poll rigging, it was widely predicted that Imran Khan would become the leader of the largest party despite diverging opinion polls. During election night, however, multiple reports came in of polling agents from different political parties being shut out of the count. The vast majority of political parties, including Islamic political parties traditionally favored by the military, have rejected the results although they have decided not to boycott the parliament.
What can we expect from an Imran Khan led government? It is likely to be a weak government. Khan did not secure a majority of seats in the National Assembly and will have to cobble together a coalition from smaller parties and independents, who will join Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The losing parties, while not boycotting the parliament, have promised a robust opposition.
The biggest issue facing Pakistan’s new leader is the balance of payments crisis. Pakistan has only two months of foreign reserves left. It is expected that the country will have to ask for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Such a bailout will have ramifications for Khan’s ability to deliver on his “Islamic welfare state,” a key part of his campaign (although one that received less attention than his anti-corruption narrative).
Another area that will be worth watching is the extent to which Khan’s PTI pushes through the mainstreaming of the semi-autonomous tribal region Federally Administered Tribal Areas through their merger into the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Significant resources will be required to achieve this successfully and with the PTI in power both at the center and in the province, the central government will not be an easy scapegoat.
In the international sphere, little is likely to change. Although Khan appeared to hold out an olive branch to India in his acceptance speech, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made signs of reciprocating, Khan’s inclusion of Kashmir in his speech will not play well with India, especially as India gears up for its own elections. More importantly, any move in this area has to be initiated by the army and there are no signs that anything meaningful has changed.
Although Khan’s anti-American rhetoric is well known, such as calling President Donald J. Trump “ignorant and ungrateful,” relations with the U.S. will be dictated with the army. Pakistan’s “all-weather” friendship with China is unlike to remove the need to go to the IMF and America will need to be on board for a bailout to be offered.
Significantly, in June this year, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S. cooperated over the drone attack that killed Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban. This was a seen as a sign of improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the past history of relations between the two countries suggests that Pakistan will continue to see the Afghan Taliban as an important proxy within Afghanistan. Although the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan all agree on the need for Taliban leaders to attend talks in Afghanistan, Pakistan will not give up its proxies easily, concerned as they are by encirclement by an Afghan regime friendly to India.
Pakistan is heading for interesting times. Imran Khan is an untested leader – he has experience of campaigning but not of governing. He will now taste the constraints of power.