When I was living in Pakistan in 2014 researching the country’s elite, I frequently met with local politicians and business figures. Among my closest informants was an unaligned politician from a powerful political–business family who was being wooed by Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif to join their respective parties, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, and the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, or PML-N. Over dinner, he enjoyed describing their unsuccessful attempts to win him over.
When it became clear on Wednesday night that Khan had been elected prime minister, a particular conversation in mid 2014 came to mind. “Imran has had us at his house five times for dinner,” my friend told me, “and each time he asks us to join him. But we are not rushing into things. With politics, as with business, it is important to bide your time and let it come to you, not be over eager and rush into things.”
He went on: “Of course, my cousin and I will make this decision as a family, and in terms of what is best for our family. Is there really room for two senior-level people from the same family to enter the one political party? It may be that one of us joins PTI and the other joins PML-N. Other families in politics have done it. But I’ll tell you, Rosita, they are all exactly the same.”
They took several years to make their decision. A few weeks ago I came upon a news report that my old friend the politician had joined Khan’s PTI. A picture showed the two men grasping hands, a PTI scarf around my friend’s neck. Pakistani politicians are nothing if not pragmatic.
My friend’s decision was just one of many late political switches to Khan’s party, mostly from the PLM-N, the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the once left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party, or PPP. These footloose politicians — often large landowners and major employers, dubbed “electables” in the Pakistani press — command large and loyal voter blocs in their local areas. By jumping from the two biggest sinking ships, they deftly retained their hold on national political and economic decision-making and their access to a larger share of the goodies that a role in the ruling party would provide.
During the campaign, Khan had made clear his belief that winning over the electables in Punjab — Pakistan’s most populous, politically critical, and well-resourced province — would pave the way to victory. The polls have proved him correct.
Political parties in Pakistan have always been organised around a dominant leader rather than an ideological platform. Senior politicians who jump parties make a gamble that their new party will win and they will receive the promised ministerial position in the national or provincial assembly. If their gamble pays off, both they and their local constituents benefit from their proximity to power, through preferential government contracts and greater access to funding and bureaucratic jobs. This is why voters tend to be loyal to a leader rather than a party, and it’s why most politicians focus on building and switching alliances rather than articulating ideological stances or constructing party platforms. It means that the new prime minister’s government is likely to be filled with politicians as pragmatic as he is.
Though Khan’s party members — new and old — applaud his commitment to a naya, or “new,” Pakistan and to rooting out government corruption, many note privately that his hunger for power is much stronger than his commitment to eradicating corruption or fulfilling the numerous other campaign pledges he made to various voting blocs. The likelihood is that Imran the prime minister will be more conciliatory, and less revolutionary, than Imran the candidate.
Khan’s perceived religiosity is popular among religious fundamentalists, but many suggest that both his incendiary comments about minorities during the campaign and his perceived piety are more a performance than a reflection of deep ideological commitment. Throughout the campaign, he embraced the nation’s religious hardliners, winning their support by backing Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, which mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad. This law has been used widely as a justification by mobs involved in vigilante violence against Pakistan’s minority religious communities. Khan’s emphatic rejection of calls to repeal Pakistan’s second amendment, which declares the widely persecuted Ahmadi community to be non-Muslim, is also deeply worrying.
But there is reason to hope that this hardline stance will soften as Imran the prime minister settles into his leadership role. In his first address to the nation since the election, his religious rhetoric had already shifted to a much softer focus on his desire to mould Pakistan into a humanitarian state.
Beyond religion, Khan faces two great challenges. He must revive Pakistan’s economy in the face of the crippling debt his government has inherited, and he must manage relations with the de facto military regime that is widely believed to have backed his candidacy.
The last PML-N government embarked on major infrastructure projects and invested heavily in public services. These initiatives were welcomed by many Pakistanis, especially in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, where two major transport projects have been completed. But many Pakistanis are also worried about the nation’s foreign debt burden and the weakening rupee, and with good reason.
The new government has inherited an enormous fiscal deficit and a debt burden created by the high spending of the previous government. If left unchecked, they could force the government to accept a potentially disastrous and divisive International Monetary Fund bailout. Over the past year, the previous government took emergency loans worth US$5 billion from Chinese commercial banks to build up Pakistan’s central bank reserves. Though Chinese aid and investment is often couched in the language of Pakistan–China “friendship,” it comes with strings attached, leaving many Pakistanis worried by the prospect of Chinese neocolonialism and fearful that Chinese enterprises will infiltrate all areas of Pakistan’s economy.
The Pakistani rupee is also faltering, boosting the prices of imports, including the oil needed by domestic businesses. The situation is worsened by the global hike in oil prices: at US$70 a barrel, the fuel’s price has more than doubled since Sharif’s third term.
Khan has reaffirmed his commitment to the Pakistan–China relationship, and positioned Pakistan as supplicant to Chinese might and money. Immediately following his victory, he declared that “China gives us a huge opportunity through CPEC [the China Pakistan Economic Corridor], to use it and drive investment into Pakistan. We want to learn from China how they brought 700 million people out of poverty.”
Regardless of the terms of Chinese assistance, Khan’s government must balance high levels of foreign debt, the raised expectations of Pakistanis already enjoying some improvement in government services, and Pakistan’s potentially crippling dependence on Chinese support.
Khan will also need to manage his relationship with the military as he transitions from candidate to power-holder. Throughout the campaign he praised Pakistan’s military as the country’s sole transparent and corruption-free institution. Yet allegations of military interference in campaigning and at polling stations have been frequent in recent weeks. Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission claimed that candidates representing the Sharifs’ party were being pressured to switch parties, and members of the PPP and other smaller parties also reported serious harassment by both law enforcement and security personnel. The more upbeat view of polling day activity from the EU Election Observation Mission to Pakistan (which had been denied access during the month leading up to the election) has only slightly dampened these suspicions.
Khan’s detractors claim the military sees him as more easy to manipulate than either the PML-N or PPP candidates, and more likely to toe the military’s hard line against cooperation with India. Yet it seems likely that Imran the prime minister will be friendlier towards India than the military would prefer. His inaugural speech acknowledged Kashmir as a major stumbling block in Pakistan–India relations, but devoted considerable time to discussing the need for improved ties between the nations. “I think it will be very good for all of us if we have good relations with India,” he said. “We need to have trade ties, and the more we will trade, both countries will benefit… If India’s leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties.” For the Subcontinent, he added, “the most important thing [is] for both countries to have friendship.”
Khan’s inexperience, though, could be cause for deep pessimism. He has no experience in national government, and despite his pledges to create a “new” corruption-free Pakistan, his PTI government will be full of the movers and shakers of the corruption-riddled “old Pakistan” that he has spent the last five years decrying.
But for a moment, let’s countenance the possibility that Imran the prime minister will differ in positive ways from Imran the candidate. While his prime ministership is still fresh, unmarred by the inevitable concessions he is likely to make to the military and his supporters in the nation’s religious hard right, it is still realistic to hope that he will surprise the sceptics among us and pursue the more humanitarian, peaceful state he described in his victory speech.
But perhaps I am being naive. As my friend the politician also said, “Imran comes in promising change just as Obama came in promising change, but there has been no actual change. It will be the same with Imran.” ●