A few days before his much heralded victory in July’s general election, Imran Khan made a promise: ‘We will change Pakistan. We will end corruption.’

People from diverse backgrounds across the country voted to support his vision and on the surface his success – despite being tainted by widespread allegations of vote-rigging –might indeed seem to signal change,disrupting the long-standing dominance of two political dynasties, the Bhutto and Sharif families. Many Pakistanis are weary of the old system they headed, with itssluggish economic and social progress, frequent power shortages and limited educational opportunities, especially for girls.Those who backed Khan in the polls will no doubt hope that he will address these and other pressing issues – most notably the country’s looming debt crisis and shrunken foreign currency reserves – and that his win will loosen the military’s grip on power and mark a significant step on Pakistan’s path towards becoming an open and transparent democracy.

But a brief look through Pakistan’s history suggests that their optimism could be misguided and, more crucially, that the new prime minister-elect, however well-intentioned, might be naïve in his belief that any realforce for change rests in his hands.

In its relatively short life as a nation state, Pakistan has spent several decades under military rule or influence, to such a degree that it appears to be endemic to its political makeup. In 1958, the country’s first president,Major General Iskander Mirza,dismissedthe Constituent Assembly and the government of Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon, appointing army commander-in-chief General Ayub Khan as the chief martial law administrator.Within a fortnight, Mirza himself had been unceremoniously discharged and General Khantook up the presidency.

Less than 20 years later, in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haqled the ironically named Operation Fair Play against then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – who was later executed on trumped-up murder charges – ordering Bhutto’s arrest, along with his ministers and other party leaders, and announcing that the Constitution of Pakistan had been suspended.

The list continues with the October 1999 military coup, when officers loyal to army chief General Pervez Musharraf detained prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his ministers after frustrating Sharif’s attempts to dismiss Musharraf. And this is not even to take into account all the failed military coups and indirect military interventions, which illustrate a worrying trend towardsgainingpower through the pistol, not the poll.

There were those who broke the mould. During his periods in office, the now disgraced and jailedNawaz Sharif was a civilian leader cut from a different cloth from many of his predecessors. He resisted the role of the military in political life, and worked towardsrapprochement with India. Some may feel his incarceration on corruption charges is deserved, buthis acquisition of wealth was no greater or less accounted for than that of previous leaders, and the Supreme Court that investigated him has a history of yielding to army pressure – it did not, for example, act against General Musharraf in a number of cases, and it appointed two serving army officers, with no judicial or investigative experience, as members of its Joint Investigation Team.

A new prime minister has now been elected in Pakistan, ostensibly by due democratic process. It is easy to see Imran Khan as the people’s choice: his charisma and sporting heroism are real enough, and he is earnest in his avowed commitment to foment change.

Yet many believe he had, and still has, the backing of the county’s powerful military, and will not – or cannot – bite the hand that feeds him. As a cricketer, Khan showed admirable powers of leadership, skill and courage. But now he faces a far greater opponent if he does not stay on-side and the question continues to nag: will Imran Khan have what it takes to challenge those who almost certainly helped to place him on the seat of power? And if he does, how long will he remain there?

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