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Could Crusading Populist Imran Khan Bring About Reform in Pakistan?

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The Pulse

Could Crusading Populist Imran Khan Bring About Reform in Pakistan?

Khan has managed to effectively rally against the established political order, but could he deliver on his promises?

Could Crusading Populist Imran Khan Bring About Reform in Pakistan?

Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan, chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, gives the victory sign during a press conference to present the party’s manifesto for the forthcoming election, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, July 9, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

From Trump’s America to Modi’s India, anti-establishment and anti-status quo politics are trending across the globe, and Pakistan is no exception. With Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz disqualified and out of the way, the path is seemingly clearing to allow a smoother road to power for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its leader, Imran Khan. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) still remains a strong contender of course, and the return of the Sharifs to face charges and imprisonment in Pakistan has the potential to work in the party’s favor.

Khan has certainly come a long way in his political ambitions. From launching the PTI in 1996 and wining no seats in the 1997 elections to winning only one seat in 2002 and boycotting the 2008 elections, the PTI today is the strongest opponent to the PML-N. Khan’s platform of anti-corruption and his pledge to create a “New Pakistan” based on good governance, political accountability, and access to healthcare, jobs, and education, has resonated well with the masses – especially the under-25 crowd that is disillusioned with the system and represents more than half of the country’s population.

But in a country as complex as Pakistan, which is riddled with international debts, a financial slowdown, energy deficits, weak institutions, and terrorism, winning elections might be the relatively easier task. Can the PTI deliver on its promises and provide a better life to Pakistan’s citizens?  

Beyond “Agitation and Litigation”

From its “Go Nawaz Go” rallying cry, the PTI can now proudly chant “Nawaz has gone.” With his “agitation and litigation” politics, Khan has exhibited his flair for challenging the system and has remained at the forefront of opposing Sharif and his corrupt practices. Khan’s popular street protests, sit-ins and court petitions against Sharif, along with the latter’s friction with the military, provided an unstable political environment for Sharif from the start of his tenure in 2013, resulting finally in his ousting. Khan was also instrumental during the 2008 Lawyers Movement that required Musharraf to reinstate democracy.

Imran Khan has succeeded in ousting Sharif from power, but does he have what it takes to succeed him successfully?

Khan has managed to rally against the system and fight against the established political order, but the true test will be if he can actually bring about significant change in a country with several centers of power (the military establishment, the intelligence agencies, the feudal class) and their embedded interests. This may prove to be difficult for Khan since he’s likely to lead a shaky coalition and not enjoy a comfortable majority like Sharif did in parliament.

Khan’s Performance in KPK

In 2013, Khan assumed power in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province bordering Afghanistan, promising to revolutionize the province through better education, healthcare, and policing, and a 90-day period in which corruption and terrorism would be eliminated. But analysts say five years on KPK is hardly the model province Khan vowed to create. To be fair, it is a troubled province with an unfavorable security situation due to its proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions. Yet, instead of attempts to counter narratives of extremism, introduction of conservative ideas in the education curriculum to accommodate allies like the Jamaat-e-Islami party has taken place (although the socially conservative party has recently parted ways with the PTI-led government there). This is in contrast to Nawaz Sharif, whose effort through the National Action Plan (NAP) and Operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad have helped to improve the security situation within the country. Even with respect to the issue of corruption, which Khan has harped on most throughout his campaign, activists in the region are disappointed with the behavior of PTI officials.

Additionally, Khan has been critiqued for not having any significant development projects in KPK, unlike Sharif who can lay claim to several such projects including the rapid bus transit system in parts of Punjab, the Orange Line Metro in Lahore, and improvements in the infrastructure and power sectors. While it is said that advances have been made in public hospitals, policing, delivery of health insurance, and the internationally acclaimed Billion Tree Tsunami Project, broader expectations have remained unfulfilled in the province. An Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU) survey posits that thousands of schools there still don’t have electricity despite an expenditure of 36 billion Pakistani rupees ($526 million) on basic school facilities.

Thus, to translate his rhetoric into practice at the national level, Khan will have to alter his mode of politics from confrontational to developmental. While his campaign has resonated hugely, Khan has not presented any substantial plans to complement his vision of a “New Pakistan.” And if his record in KPK (which could serve as a fair assessment of how Khan may perform at the national level) is anything to go by, he may not be the savior that Pakistanis envisioned.

The Civil-Military Equation

While Khan is widely believed to be the favorite of the Pakistani establishment (the military, intelligence agencies, and parts of the bureaucracy), many analysts predict that his independent and temperamental nature might alarm the establishment. Hussain Haqqani calls him “too mercurial and unpredictable for the establishment.” Although the military is broadly thought to have largely assisted Khan’s rise, the saga of Pakistani politics reveals that favorites of the military can just as easily become enemies and bear its brunt. After all, Nawaz Sharif was himself propelled to power by the Army, and has since spent the rest of his political career dealing with their repeated and mostly successful plots to oust him. In Pakistan, one knows that it is one thing to win an election, and quite another feat to actually carry out one’s tenure without being assassinated, deposed by a coup, or dismissed by an overreaching judiciary that is backed by the military. To remain in power and remain politically stable, Khan will likely have to tow the line of the military and maintain the historical civil-military equation, or risk a fate like Sharif’s if he attempts to reform without the almighty military’s approval.

In a country where the military has been the dominant and most stable force and institution in politics, what is just as crucial is the civil-military balance. Khan has blamed this disequilibrium on the country’s corrupt and incompetent past civilian governments. We shall see if Khan can in any way tilt this historical equation, for only if power shifts in the favor of the former can democracy truly flourish.

Shairee Malhotra is Associate Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels, and has an MA International Relations from Queen Mary University of London.