Flying high on the wings of “Tabdeeli” or “change,” former cricket star Imran Khan is now the prime minister-in-waiting of Pakistan.
Notwithstanding the hue and cry raised by his opponents regarding pre-poll rigging and allegations that the powerful military establishment was backing Khan, there is no denying the fact that Khan’s charisma and his support among youth between 15 and 29 years – making roughly 29 percent of the country’s total population – played key role in expanding his party’s vote bank.
Catapulted to fame by the miraculous cricket victory at Melbourne in March 1992, Khan added another feather to his cap through social work by constructing Pakistan’s first-ever state-of-the-art cancer hospital in Lahore.
However, it was his demagogy and angry vitriols against the dynastic political leadership over the past decade-and-a-half that raised his profile as “Mr. Clean.” Khan’s supporters, particularly among youth, see him as the only hope to bring real change in Pakistan.
Over the past five years, Imran Khan remained on the streets rallying his young supporters to criticize the then-ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) as well as other political parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
It is generally believed that Khan’s next five years as prime minister will be tumultuous mainly because of the coming together of the opposition parties against his PTI. But his real testing point will likely be the moment when he refuses to toe the line drawn by the country’s powerful military establishment.
Thus Khan’s real challenge will come from his so-called benefactors in the Pakistan army rather than his adversaries in the opposition political parties.
Why the Opposition Won’t Be a Formidable Challenge
Despite their antipathy toward Imran Khan, the political leadership in the opposition is more focused on retaining whatever they have in hand rather than snatching what they see in front of them. Besides, the two top opposition parties – the PML-N and PPP – have their own inter- and intra-party feuds and differences on many issues, which will keep them from uniting on a single point agenda.
The PML-N, for instance, under the leadership of Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is more focused on retaining its Punjab government rather than presenting any serious challenge to the PTI in the center.
Shehbaz Sharif could not see an eye-to-eye with his elder brother Nawaz on the issue of curtailing the army’s role in matters pertaining to elected civilian authorities. He set aside the slogan of “vote ko Izzat do” or “respect the vote” built up by Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam before they were hastily awarded jail sentences on charges of keeping assets beyond their known sources of income.
Since then, the majority of the hardliners in the PML-N, who used to raise questions about the military’s intelligence agencies, have fallen silent. It is generally believed that unwritten instructions had come from none other than Shehbaz Sharif, who is likely to be the opposition leader in the center.
Family ties apart, Shehbaz and his son Hamza will be feeling more comfortable with their political sway in the absence of Nawaz and his daughter Maryam. Differences had already been reported over the issue of Nawaz promoting Maryam as the next PML-N leader.
Like the PML-N, the PPP, the second largest opposition party, is happy with retaining its seat of power in Sindh province. The party is in the hands of Bilawal Bhutto, the 29-year-old son of former premier Benazir Bhutto. But Benazir’s widower, former President Asif Ali Zardari, is still pulling some strings, while trying to stay in the proverbial good books of the security establishment. Zardari and his sister, Faryal Talpur, have corruption cases pending against them, which is believed to be the establishment’s hanging swords over their heads.
At the moment, creating hurdles for Imran Khan is not going to be an option for the PPP, once known as an anti-establishment party. Such a move may antagonize the military generals, believed to be the actors who helped Imran Khan into the saddle to lead Pakistan for the next five years.
The smaller parties, including the religious parties’ alliance Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), and the Awami National Party (ANP), may not be able to pose a serious challenge without the backing of the two main opposition parties, the PML-N and PPP.
Although MMA chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman, ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, and PkMAP chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai expressed serious reservations against what they call rigging in the election, their voices are not going to build unless they attain the full backing of the PML-N and PPP.
Imran Khan’s Real Challenge
Rather than from his political opposition, Khan is likely to face a formidable challenge from two other sides – and ironically, both are the groups that helped Khan to win the July 25 polls. They are the youth and the military generals.
Bitterly frustrated with the existing political system and its failures, both perceived and real, the youth voted for Imran Khan’s Justice Movement with the hope that he will prove the harbinger of change. They expect Khan to encourage the middle class to compete with the ruling elites, end corruption, create jobs by stabilizing the economy, and ensure justice for the common man.
But while Khan built up his political constituency with the catchy slogan of “change,” the majority of PTI’s elected representatives are old faces who have been shifting political loyalties as the wind changes its direction.
Dozens of so-called “electables,” the individuals capable of winning their seats in parliament thanks to their personal vote banks, defected to the PTI from other parties, mainly the PPP and PML-N, weeks before the election. Many others, who won their seats in parliament as independent candidates, are now being picked by Khan’s party, disregarding their track record of allegedly being involved in corruption and religious fanaticism and sectarianism. As a result, the ratio of traditional politicians, including industrialists and feudal-style leaders, had already surpassed the number of young and middle-class leaders and activists in Khan’s PTI.
In view of the developing situation, the key question before the PTI leadership is how the party will question and break the status quo when a majority of its leaders belong to the same old order.
With no visible change coming in the next year or two, the very youth who shouldered the PTI’s success may be on the street against Imran Khan. There have already been several protests by PTI activists in front of Khan’s house on the outskirts of Islamabad after the distribution of party tickets. The disillusioned youth will not wait any longer to see their hopes materialized.
Khan’s second and more serious challenge will be his dealing with the country’s powerful military establishment, often mentioned as the real power broker in Pakistan.
The military and its intelligence agencies’ role in the election was questioned quite often weeks before the July 25 polls, both in the media and public speeches by political leaders. And the stigma of the establishment’s backing will stay with Khan.
There will be smooth sailing as long as Khan toes the line drawn by the military establishment, but the rug may likely be pulled from under his feet the moment he tries to cross the limit on the issues seen as red areas from military’s point of view.
Former Premier Nawaz Sharif’s mistake, as has been reported, was making peace overtures toward India and Afghanistan, seeking friendly ties with the United States, and implementing a straightforward approach toward the fight against militants and terrorists. Pakistan’s security establishment has often been accused of using double standards in fighting terrorists, a charge vehemently refused by the Pakistani authorities.
Being known for his independent mind, many Pakistani analysts believe sooner or later, Khan will be challenging the military’s interference in the civilian domain. Khan, in his victory speech last week, mentioned peace and better ties with India and Afghanistan, but stopped short of mentioning Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.
None of Pakistan’s prime ministers have completed their full five-year term. To look back only at recent history, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was elected prime minister in 2008, was disqualified by the Supreme Court in the fourth year of his term to be replaced by Raja Pervez Ashraf.
The same story was repeated in 2017 when then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court in the fourth year of his term and was replaced by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. The real problem was the same: Tension between the civilian and military authorities.
Now Imran Khan’s independent mind will be on trial. More depends on how much space he will surrender and for how long.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.