Syed Zafar Mehdi

Imran Khan has the charisma and leadership traits. But will he deliver?

July 29, 2018

As expected, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) had the last laugh in the bitterly-contested, violence-marred general election in Pakistan, enjoying success across the country. In results announced on Friday, PTI had won 114 seats, while its closest rival Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) had clinched 63 and Pakistan People’s Party 43 respectively.

PTI, however, couldn’t touch the magic figure of 137 seats to form the next government, which means it still needs to shake hands with likeminded parties. What is certain is that the charismatic leader of the PTI will finally realize his long-cherished dream of becoming the premier of Pakistan.

The results are not shocking as many poll strategists had even before the election tipped Imran Khan to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, to replace the deposed premier and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif. But, the election has been marred by allegations of rigging and manipulation against the powerful military establishment, which is believed to have favored Khan’s PTI over other parties.

Sharif, who is currently languishing in Adiala Jail in the garrison city of Rawalpindi after being sentenced to ten-year jail term in an anti-graft case, termed the election result as “tainted and dubious”, which he said would have detrimental impact on the country’s politics. He said the election has been “stolen” by the military establishment, reiterating what he had said before his arrest.

On Friday, in a display of magnanimity and political foresight, the party said it will not boycott the country’s new parliament despite serious reservations over the election results. Senior PML-N leader Hamza Shahbaz Sharif said his beleaguered camp would concede defeat to Khan’s PTI in order to “strengthen democracy in the country”. “We are going to sit on opposition benches, despite all the reservations,” he said. “Even if democracy is flawed, its solution is more democracy, and then more democracy.”

Now that the path has been paved for Khan to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, it is important to underline challenges he will be facing in office, in terms of domestic and foreign affairs. A controversial but hugely popular political figure, Khan commands the following among Pakistan’s burgeoning young population the way no other leader does. The fact that he is considered honest and non-corrupt goes in his favor in a country where almost all top politicians have made fortune out of power.

But, Khan’s real test starts now. How he will resurrect the country’s flailing economy, address the issue of inflation, create employment and jobs, act against terror outfits operating out of Pakistan, improve ties with important regional allies and come out of the shadow of U.S. by making his country economically and militarily independent. Regional observers will be closely watching his moves in reaching out to estranged neighbors India and Afghanistan and bolstering ties with a crucial ally China.

In his brief and crispy victory speech on Thursday, Khan vowed to revive the dialogue process with New Delhi and seek a resolution to the dispute over Kashmir. “I really want to fix our ties, you take one step forward, we take two,” he said, giving peaceniks a reason to cheer.

However, any breakthrough in Indo-Pak ties is highly unlikely until the next year’s general election in India. Narendra Modi led BJP government in New Delhi would not want to antagonize its loyal Hindu vote bank in India by talking peace with Pakistan ahead of elections.

Another thorny issue the incoming PM of Pakistan would be facing is Afghanistan, a country that shares border with Pakistan and has often accused Islamabad of harboring terrorist groups like Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network that regularly launch attacks against Afghanistan. As the relations between the two countries have worsened, the ties between Afghanistan and India have improved in recent years, which compound matters further. Some even believe India and Pakistan use Afghanistan as a battleground of proxy war.

Khan has expressed his desire to mend ties with Kabul, since he understands Pakistan needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how he brings the debilitating Pakistan-Afghanistan ties back on the track, considering many visible and invisible roadblocks.

Some experts argue that the jurisdiction of the incoming PM is likely to be limited as military mostly controls the foreign policy issues. Sharif, it is believed, had rubbed the military wrong way by extending an olive branch to New Delhi and offering support to the Afghan government’s peace process with the Afghan Taliban. And he paid the heavy price. Khan can ill-afford to cross the red-line.

Another country Khan needs to focus on is China, a regional bulwark which has replaced U.S. as the most important ally of Islamabad recently. Khan has vowed to stick to economic reforms ushered in with the help of China, and how the two countries take their relationship forward under Khan’s leadership will be exciting to see. The future of China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) most likely will be determined in Khan’s tenure.  

Coming to the Pakistan-U.S. ties, which have deteriorated since the hyperbolic tweet from Donald Trump on New Year, accusing Islamabad of not cracking down on terror and threatening to withhold financial aid. Khan believes the relationship between the two former allies is “one-sided”. Khan is not Sharif. He believes in walking the walk, at least that is what we have seen till now. So, will he stick to his position on the U.S.-Pakistan ties or will he adopt the line of Sharif government?

Imran fully understands the anti-Americanism that permeates the society and polity of Pakistan. He objected to Trump’s accusations that Pakistan provides a safe haven for terrorists. In the past, he has led demonstrations against U.S. drone warfare, calling it “inhumane”. He has also accused Washington of exploiting Pakistan and denounced his country’s leaders of being pawns in America’s war on terror.

In response to Trump’s hyperbolic New Year tweet, Khan had called for immediate removal of “excessive U.S. diplomatic, non-diplomatic and intelligence personnel from Pakistan” and denying them air route support in Afghanistan which Pakistan, he claimed, was providing “free of cost”.

Will Khan be a strong PM the way he was a strong captain of Pakistan cricket team? He has got the leadership qualities, and the charisma. But, politics is not cricket. His legacy will be defined by how well he addresses some of the issues mentioned above.