Pakistan’s economic woes, terrorism and complex foreign relations remain. Is a former cricket player up to the task?
C. Uday Bhaskar says Pakistan’s latest election has apparently chosen a former cricket player known for a poor attention span to lead a deeply divided country where a military, beholden to Islamic extremists, has pulled the strings for decades. Islamabad’s backers in Beijing and Washington must be wondering: what could go wrong?
The changing of the guard in a nuclear-armed state is of global relevance and the outcome of the violence-scarred July 25 Pakistan elections is no surprise. In the months preceding the election, the received wisdom was that the powerful Pakistani military that has ruled the nation for the last six decades – either directly after a military coup or from behind the electoral screen – had identified former cricket player and playboy Imran Khan as the next prime minister of Pakistan. And so it has come to pass.
At this time of writing, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), led by the novice political leader Khan, is set to emerge as the single largest party in first-past-the-post elections for the 272 seats in the National Assembly. Coming in a distant second was the PML-N – short for Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – led by the now-imprisoned former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party), led by the 29-year-old son of another former prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto, placed third.
Khan, a greenhorn prime minister who will hold high political office through the democratic process despite having zero experience, is of the Donald Trump mode. While Khan’s support base will cheer, his detractors and many discerning Pakistanis are deeply concerned about the former cricketer’s ability to govern a structurally distorted state and a very troubled, divided society.
Launched in April 1996, the PTI is a relatively young political party compared to the PML and the PPP – traditional rivals in the domestic political arena.
In one of the many ironies embedded in Pakistan’s Sisyphean struggle to uphold democratic principles and civilian rule through the ballot box, every political leader who has become prime minister has had to defer to the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi to reach the top. This was true of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and his daughter Benazir (tragically assassinated in 2007 during an election rally), as well as Sharif.
What are the implications and inferences of the Pakistan election? At the outset, the Pakistani election machinery and civil society are to be commended for ensuring that the election took place on schedule despite the many challenges that terrorist-related violence posed (even on the day of polling in Quetta) and the allegations of rigging and booth-capture by the military.
Clearly the PTI has obtained the support of the younger demographic in Pakistan and the yearning for change is palpable. The PML-N had been in the saddle both at the centre in Islamabad and the capital of the largest province Punjab, but the many charges of corruption against the Sharif family and internal discord have weakened the oldest political party of Pakistan.
Voters will seek improved quality of daily life and governance. However, given the fragile state of the national economy, the high public debt ratio and the weakening Pakistani rupee, Khan will have his plate full on assuming office.
The regional implications of Khan as prime minister are complex and contradictory. The civilian prime minister will be in Islamabad and, given how the army prepared the “pitch” for a PTI victory, it is very likely that the real power in critical security and foreign policy issues (nuclear weapons, support to terrorist groups, relations with India, Afghanistan, China and the United States) will lie with the army.
But in an extension of the multiple ironies that hobble democracy in Pakistan, the army in turn is beholden to the right-wing religious constituency that was given state support during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following decades, the Kalashnikov-wielding mujahideen has morphed into the deadly al-Qaeda/Taliban/Islamic State and become the (non-state) tail that wags the dog.
The army and the ISI, its intelligence agency, continue to support terrorist groups, who in turn consider themselves the guardians of the (Sunni) Islamic faith. Both India and Afghanistan have deep reservations about the current turn of events – wherein the new prime minister will be in debt to the army. Furthermore, the army has mortgaged its assets and capability to the terrorist groups operating from Muridke, which is 90km north of Lahore.
Paradoxically, both China and the US, the two major powers that have supported the Pakistan military for decades, may find the Khan-led orientation of Pakistan challenging. Anxiety about support to terrorist groups has grown in Beijing due to the adverse impact it may have on the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan economic corridor. The US under Trump may increase its “tough-love” policy if the Pakistani state does not sever links with terrorist groups.
Thus, if the Muridke influence on Rawalpindi transmutes into Islamabad continuing to nurture extremist Islamic ideology and shelter terrorist groups – the new prime minister – to use a cricketing analogy – may have to face multiple bouncers from different sides as soon as he comes into bat.
It does not help that the new leader of Pakistan has long been known as “Im the Dim”, thanks to his attention-deficit disorder and his estranged wife’s tell-all revealing a man with deep personality disorders. A nuclear-armed state with effete civilian leadership and an army that is invested in terrorism is disturbing augury.
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. [email protected]