By Ammar Ali Qureshi

Imran Khan’s foreign policy challenges

August 16, 2018

TEHRAN - Imran Khan, who is all set to take oath as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, is a populist and nationalist politician who has promised his voters Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan), based on better governance, and emphasized the need to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state.

His electoral victory is a culmination of twenty two years of political journey during which he faced humiliations as well as spent most of the time in political wilderness - becoming politically relevant only in the last seven years.

One of the world’s most famous cricketers and Pakistan’s leading philanthropist who had built a cancer hospital in memory of his mother before stepping into politics in 1996, Imran Khan, by winning the elections in 2018, has ended the duopoly of two major and most well-entrenched political parties – Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan People Party (PPP), who have ruled Pakistan six times since 1988, in addition to military government of General Musharraf.

Imran Khan has consistently cited corruption as Pakistan’s number one problem and his vocal criticism of the privileged elite has been the centre-piece of his electoral rhetoric for decades. He is not the first populist and nationalist to highlight income distributional issues in Pakistan’s political history. In late 1960s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emerged as the most pre-eminent demagogue, nationalist and populist in Pakistan’s history. He attacked income concentration in the hands of 22 leading industrial families and made it a rallying cry during the 1970 election.

After the fall of Dhaka (then capital of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) during 1971 war with India, Bhutto became President of a truncated country which was financially broke as well. He also promised a “new Pakistan, a better Pakistan” in his inaugural speech and had to start anew by literally picking up the pieces. His manifesto for 1970 elections also dwelled on the concept of Islamic Socialism, highlighting the Islamic welfare state aspect.
Bhutto, in a number of ways, was a transformative figure in Pakistan’s history. He enjoyed unfettered powers, first as President who was also civilian martial law administrator and later as Prime Minister who enjoyed overwhelming majority in the parliament. He gave the country the 1973 Constitution, started the nuclear programme, and nationalized the economy. Bhutto, an ex-foreign minister himself, re-oriented the foreign policy by bringing Pakistan closer to the Muslim world and strengthened relations with China. He hosted the 1974 OIC Summit in Lahore which has been termed as the grandest PR campaign by a Pakistani Prime Minister.

Most importantly, military establishment during Bhutto’s tenure remained mostly subservient to him till it re-asserted itself due to a series of mistakes that Bhutto made by initially launching military operation in Baluchistan province and later by calling upon the army to restore peace in key cities during unrest following allegedly rigged elections in 1977, finally ending in a military coup by General Zia ul Haq.

Imran Khan – despite his mix of nationalism and populism in election campaign – does not have electoral majority in the parliament to push through major legislations. He has a fractured mandate but will be able to form a government by cobbling together a coalition of disparate small parties but his majority in the National Assembly will be razor-thin. He will be dealing with an establishment which has been accused by opposition parties of bringing him to power and which has kept in check previously elected Prime Ministers with more comfortable majority in the assemblies.

Khan, by nature and temperament, is a very independent person and it still remains to be seen as to how he will be able to navigate his way without running into conflict with the establishment. His focus, as indicated in his acceptance speech, will be on governance reforms and administrative efficiency- areas in which he will not encounter any opposition from the establishment. It is in the domain of foreign policy where he will have to tread carefully due to hitherto domination of establishment as well as lack of space due to precarious financial situation that the country is facing.

Unlike his predecessor, Khan should appoint a full-time foreign minister. There are a number of relevant candidates in his party for this position. In his acceptance speech, Khan laid out the broad contours of his foreign policy, focusing on China, US, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

He has made a positive statement about trade with India. Khan, as a celebrity, has extensive fan-following in India and enjoys good relations with celebrities across the border. If he is able to win over the confidence of the military establishment, India can feel comfortable dealing with a Pakistani Prime Minister enjoying military support. Otherwise, Pakistan-India relations might enter a hawkish phase during the next five years.

Pakistan-US relations, even before Khan’s election, have cooled down with President Trump cutting off military aid earlier this year. Khan, during the previous decade or so, has been at the forefront of whipping up anti-Americanism in the country- denouncing drone attacks and criticizing Pakistan’s participation in the war on terror. Washington also views populist Khan with scepticism due to his pro-Taliban sympathies, which he claims is due to misunderstanding but has not made any efforts to engage Americans and clarify.

Islamabad’s pivot to Beijing is easy to predict and will be continuation of the foreign policy pursued during the last few years. Washington will continue to view Pakistan either through Afghanistan or through South Asian prism. Recently, senior Washington officials met Afghan Taliban in Qatar and if this policy is followed more seriously, Islamabad will have a role to play in furthering this policy.

Khan in his victory speech mentioned Iran in a warm manner and expressed his wish to strengthen relations with this important neighbour. He also vowed to remain neutral in a conflict in the region involving Muslim neighbours or play the role of the mediator. Khan’s party played a vocal and vital role in Pakistan’s parliament when it decided few years back to stay out of Yemen war being pursued by Saudi Arabia. Under Khan, one can expect a more nuanced and balanced approach to Islamabad’s relations with Tehran and Riyadh.

Given geographical proximity and shared cultural values, both Tehran and Islamabad need to cooperate more with each other in promoting economic, trade and cultural ties, pursuing stability in Afghanistan, tapping energy markets, stepping up connectivity through Gwadar and Chabahar ports, staying out of regional conflicts etc.

From Pakistan’s side, Khan may turn out to be a good bet to engage Iran and improve relations between the two countries.
The writer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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