Pakistan’s 106 million voters can take pride in having effected a change of government through the ballot box, something that cannot be taken for granted in a country that has long been under military rule. Nicholas Nugent questions the role of the army in Imran Khan’s election victory, and considers its likely role in his premiership

There is no doubt that Imran Khan is a popular choice for prime minister of Pakistan. As a cricketer he captained the national team in his thirties, leading it to victory at the Cricket World Cup in 1992. Former England captain Mike Atherton calls him Pakistan’s ‘finest captain’, saying he was ‘born to lead’.

After capturing the World Cup, Oxford-educated Khan gave up cricket and the glamorous social life he had lived in London and returned to Pakistan to enter politics.A key mission of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) – Movement for Justice Party –he founded was to end corruption. He claimed that while other political leaders took money out of the country, he brought it in, a claim backed in part by his construction of cancer hospitals in memory of his mother. The first was in Lahore, the city where he was brought up, and a second followed at Peshawar, in the homeland of his native Pashtuns, with a third in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.

Khan’s triumph at the polls has broughtto an end – whether temporarily or for good – the dynastic politics in which the Bhutto family rivalled the Sharif family. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan Peoples Party in the 1970s, becoming the country’s president and later prime minister before being overthrown in one of the military coup d’états that mark the country’s history. Bhuttowas subsequently executed when the Supreme Court held him responsible for the murder of a political opponent.Bhutto’s vanquisher, General Zia-ul Haq, is regarded as the sponsor of the Pakistan Muslim League which later added the suffix Nawaz, after its leader Nawaz Sharif, to be known as the PML-N.

In this election the Peoples Party was led by Zulfikar’s grandson, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose mother – Zulfikar’s daughter – Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, was assassinated while campaigning in the 2008 election. Bilawal’s father, Asif Zardari,held the post of president before serving two terms of imprisonment for corruption.

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the first time in 1990 and was in his third term as premier when the Supreme Court dismissed him a year ago for corruption. The party is now led by his brother, Shebhaz Sharif, while Nawaz and his intended heir, daughter Maryam, are beginning long prison sentences. Many smaller parties, some espousing militant pro-Islam policies, also contested, butthis election was essentially a three-horse race between the Bhuttos’ PPP, the PML-N of the Sharifs and Imran Khan’s PTI.

Nawaz Sharif claims the country’s powerful and sizeable army ‘fixed’ his dismissal in July 2017 and subsequent ten-year jail sentence in an effort to secure victory at the polls for their favoured candidate, suggesting a more sophisticated form of army intervention or manipulation than the military coups of the past. Both Khan and army leader General Qamar Javed Bajwa have denied the charges.

Even so, there is little doubting that the Pakistan army, which the International Institute for Strategic Studies says is 560,000 strong, wields enormous influence, especially through its powerful intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The ISI effectively controls Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan, giving support to the Taliban when called for, as well as towards India, Pakistan’s main regional rival and the reason for the size of its armed forces.It is often said that the ISI determines who rules Pakistan, which is what Nawaz Sharif essentially claimed during this campaign.

The violence unleashed during the recent election campaign, especially in the restive provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (where Khan’s PTI has led a coalition government since 2013), will be an early test for Imran Khan as prime minister. Responsibility for explosions which killed many civilians and at least one candidate has been variously claimed by Islamic State and the Pakistan Taliban. They draw attention to the complicated allegiances and violent politics near the north-west frontier with Afghanistan, which since British times has been regarded as unruly and ungovernable territory.

A second big challenge for the new prime minister will be the economy. Massive infrastructural development – power station construction, road-building and the like –funded in part by China give Pakistan the appearance of a country on the move. In fact, shortly before the elections, the government defaulted on payments to construction companies because, allegedly, the coffers were empty.

It is widely expected that Pakistan will be forced to appeal for loan support to the IMF within months. Some say the new prime minister’s anti-American rhetoric has been curtailed by this expectation, since America’s support for a loan will be crucial. Last year, President Trump cancelled US support for the Pakistan military because he was unhappy with what he said was its interference in Afghanistan.

The ISI effectively controls Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan and India

An alternative to an appeal to the IMF would be to seek further financial support from China, currently the country’s closest ally and supporter, to whom it is already enormously in debt.

The late Benazir Bhutto complained that while Pakistan is a nuclear power, it was not her finger on the nuclear button
The late Benazir Bhutto complained that while Pakistan is a nuclear power, it was not her finger on the nuclear button

Should Imran Khan wants to change Pakistan’s foreign policy – by ending interference in Afghanistan, for example, or putting out peace feelers to India, or even reducing economic dependence on China – he would first need to clear such a change with the armed forces who have strong views on all those matters. Making peace with India andgenerating a peace dividendby reducing the size of the army would make sense but is completely unacceptable to the army.

Whether or not the army helped Imran take power, he will certainly be a hostage to their wishes, as all previous civilian leaders have found. As prime minister, Benazir Bhutto used to complain that while Pakistan is a nuclear power it was not her finger on the nuclear button.
History has shown how easily the army can dismiss a leader with whose policies it does not agree. Or it can adopt other tactics. Imran Khan had a remarkably clean image during this campaign, which may have caused voters to overlook his limited political experience as well as his former playboy lifestyle. But anew book by the second of his two former wives, Reham Khan, quotes Khan himself as saying he is the father of five illegitimate children. Neither the claim itself nor its attribution to Khan can be verified.

Reham Khan had promised not to influence the outcome of the election by publishing the book before polling day, yet it is widely available in an English version on the internet.She also gives credence to widespread gossip that her former husband was a cocaine user, saying he turned to the drug after separating from his first wife, the English heiress Jemima Goldsmith, though she does not say whether he still uses it.

Khan will be a hostage to the army’s wishes, as all previous civilian leaders have found

As easily as leaders are made in Pakistan, they can be unmade when they cease to be useful to those who really wield power, or when they threaten that very power base. Imran Khan’s task of leading Pakistan has barely begun.

Nicholas Nugent, a writer on Asia, has followed Pakistan for many years


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