Can Imran Khan Deliver?


There is a new government in Pakistan, led by Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), a political party that eschews the dynastic politics known to define the country’s other major political parties. Khan and PTI will have to manage high expectations, a formidable opposition, and an active security establishment. Professor Asma Faiz of the Lahore University of Management Sciences explains what challenges are in store for Pakistan’s new government.

The July 25 national election in Pakistan was dominated by a narrative of change for a naya (new) Pakistan. In choosing the PTI to lead the next government, Pakistanis signaled a shift against the typical pattern of support for the two dynastic parties – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – that has occurred for much of the country’s history.

From populist rhetoric to a promise to create an Islamic welfare state free of corruption and external bondage, Imran Khan and the PTI have set an extremely high bar for the new government. PTI’s revolution of rising expectations began in October 2011 with its grand rally at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. After remaining at the center of political activity during the last five years through sit-ins, street agitation and court litigation, the PTI finally reached the promised land last month with the PTI emerging as the single largest party winning 116 seats and 32 percent of the popular vote.

Given Khan’s popularity and the strong mandate given PTI by the people, will the country transform into the “new Pakistan” he envisions? The honeymoon period might be brief for the incoming government as harsh politico-economic realities sink in.  What are the major challenges it faces?

Forming a Government & Keeping It Together

The first major challenge faced by the PTI pertains to government formation. Imran Khan is set to take the oath of prime minister on 18 August. However, the delay in forming governments in Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar reflects the challenges that the new government will face in the absence of clear majority at least at the center and in Punjab.

In the safest province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KP) where the PTI won an absolute majority and where it ran the previous provincial government, the party faced considerable internal friction in finalizing the chief minister appointment. The Pakistani media was abuzz with stories of conflict between outgoing chief minister Pervez Khattak and Atif Khan, a member of his cabinet but the party finally settled on Mehmood Khan, a member of the party and former KP sports minister.

In Punjab, with the inclusion of reserved seats for women and minorities, the PTI has won 179 seats to potentially form the next provincial government in alliance with the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.  This development brings an end to a decade of PML-N rule under Shahbaz Sharif. But the PML-N will stay play a strong role in provincial politics, as it managed to secure 164 seats and seems to set to take the opposition benches under the leadership of Hamza Shahbaz. PTI might initially enjoy a “honeymoon” period as the PML-N attempts to put its house in order and work to regain its presence in northern and southern Punjab. PTI for its part will still have intra-party dynamics to contend with, as evidenced by the fact that it has yet to nominate a candidate for chief minister of Punjab.

Beyond the provinces, the real challenge for the PTI government will be at the center, where it fell short of a simple majority. The PTI’s seat tally in the National Assembly stands at 158 with the inclusion of independents and reserved seats. The Khan government will face strong resistance from a combined opposition comprising PML-N, PPP, and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amaal whose combined strength comes up to 150 in the National Assembly. The Khan government will need to win the support of smaller parties and other members of the National Assembly in order to shore up the necessary numbers to govern at the center. It has already entered into an alliance with the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). In such a neatly divided parliament, the smaller parties such as MQM, PML-Q and the newly-formed Balochistan Awami Party might play the role of king makers.

What does this all mean for the future of Khan’s government? Lacking a clear majority and keeping in mind the dynamics of coalition politics, a likely scenario in Islamabad is one akin to that faced by the regime of military rule Pervez Musharraf from 2002 – 2007, during which the PPP and PML-N formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy to pressure Musharraf to return to civilian rule.

A Free and Fair Election?

The second major political challenge faced by the PTI government is the controversy surrounding the legitimacy and fairness of the elections. The lead-up to the election was marred by allegations of election engineering. Domestic election observers, such as those from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, highlighted the one-sided nature of the accountability process, the sudden defections of electable candidates out of the PML-N and PPP, and the general input of extra-parliamentary forces in favor of the PTI.

This is not to forget that Imran Khan has been able to form his own constituency among the urban middle classes during the last two decades. His message of putting an end to dynastic politics and anti-corruption campaign have resonated well with the educated sections of the Pakistani society. Despite this, the debate on fairness of elections has rightly pointed to both the pre-election engineering as well the election-day irregularities. The latter includes the complaints of political parties concerning the expulsion of their polling agents during the vote counting process as well as mystery surrounding the malfunctioning of the Result Transmission System as the results started to come in. These factors have raised serious question marks over the fairness of the elections. The Imran Khan government will have to work hard to outgrow these grim shadows and establish its credentials as a genuinely representative and autonomous government.

In the Shadow of the Military

The PTI government inherits the legacy of Pakistan’s unbalanced civil-military dynamics. In addition to the three martial law regimes, civilian governments in Pakistan have operated under the shadow of the military (popularly known as the establishment). Further reinforcing the military’s role in government is its dominating influence over defense and foreign policies.

The mere fact that the completion of the two terms of civilian governments from 2008 – 2018 has been lauded as a great achievement speaks volumes about the fragility of democracy in the country. Even then, both governments faced challenges. The PPP government under Asif Zardari (2008-2013) faced existential crisis as it was rocked by the Memogate scandal and the Swiss Bank account saga, which led to the removal of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani by the Supreme Court. The PML-N government (2013-2018) was similarly rocked by the Panama Leaks scandal that ultimately brought down Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Will the PTI government fare better? Only time will tell. PTI supporters believe that the new government will establish the supremacy of civilian institutions in Pakistan but if history provides a guide, the road will likely be rocky for Khan who may face intervention from an ever-active Pakistani establishment.

Extremism and Militancy

The PTI government inherits far-from-satisfactory progress in the war against extremism and militancy. During the last fifteen years, Pakistan has seen more than its share of bloodshed in the name of Islamic and sectarian militancy. There is a general sense of success in the war against terrorism following military operations such as Zarb-e-Azab, but Pakistan still has a long way to go before it achieves its goal of eradicating militancy. The case of Noreen Leghari, the medical student from Sindh who confessed to joining ISIS in 2017 is a grim reminder of the challenges facing the state. The alleged mainstreaming of militant groups certainly further complicates Pakistan’s extremism challenges, the depth and breadth of which have been highlighted in the government’s National Action Plan.

None of this is helped by the fact that Imran Khan has for a long time declared war against terrorism as an external war. In 2012, he led a famous “peace march” against the US drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of the country. His overt softness towards the Taliban won him the title of ‘Taliban Khan’ from the Pakistani press. In fall 2013, the Taliban nominated Imran Khan as their representative as the group opened up negotiations with the Pakistan state. Will the Imran Khan government display resolve to tackle the challenge of militancy with an iron fist this time?

An Economic Crisis

The PTI government will have to manage an economic crisis centered around a balance of payments crisis that may involve requests for assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to estimates, the current budget deficit is close to ten percent of the GDP.  Asad Umer, who is slated to be the PTI’s finance minister has recently described the IMF as the “fall back option”. The new government’s task will be further complicated due to thorny ties with the United States. The American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s caution against using IMF dollars to bail out Chinese bonds has naturally raised eyebrows in Islamabad. The PTI government will likely face domestic backlash against the strict conditions that will potentially be part of the bailout package negotiated with the IMF.

Imran Khan takes over the reins of power in Pakistan a period of deep economic crisis, political polarization and international pressures. Rising up to these challenges will not be a mean feat of performance. Will he able to deliver the naya Pakistan? Given the curbs on the media, financial crunch and fractured legitimacy of elections, the task is far from predictable and by no means easy for a coalition government.

Cover and article image from here.

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shamilach View All →

D.C. based writer, foreign policy analyst, photographer, and former White House and U.S. State Department staffer and Afghanistan and Pakistan junkie now recovering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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