A financial crisis, political instability, and foreign pressure — the new PM has a lot on his plate.
On July 25, the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Party for Justice), led by Imran Khan, claimed victory at the country’s first general election since 2013 amid accusations of vote rigging and intimidation.
– There have been significant allegations that the military engineered the electoral outcome
– Former cricketer Imran Khan won the election campaigning on a fundamentalist and nationalist platform that appealed to Pakistan’s working class
– Khan will have to negotiate an urgent bailout from the IMF to deal with dwindling currency reserves and rising debt caused by a recent import boom
The Pakistani general election in July was a controversial affair. Opposition candidates and independent observers alleged that the Pakistani security establishment rigged the outcome in the favour of Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), founded by test cricket captain Imran Khan after his retirement from international cricket in 1996. During the count, the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tweeted that polling agents had been evicted from voting stations, and later, the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N)’s chairman Shehbaz Sharif said the party would reject the results due to irregularities.
There has been much speculation as to how the electoral outcome has been manipulated. Prior to the election, the PML-N complained of a crackdown by the security establishment which included targeted arrests of PML-N activists and the suspension of journalists critical of the military. During the count observers from several parties claimed they were expelled from polling stations and denied certified copies of electoral results. Analysts highlighted delays in unofficial results from the PLM-N stronghold of Punjab as another sign of tampering. These accusations have marred Khan’s victory.
IMPETUS FOR CHANGE
The Pakistani military has long held influence over the country’s politics. Since gaining independence in 1947, the South Asian nation has spent 33 years under military rule and the armed forces have played a significant role in developing Pakistan’s national identity. Even in periods of democracy, the military has often waded into domestic politics and it is widely accepted that the security establishment dictates foreign and security policy.
Given its history, it’s unsurprising that the military played a significant role in Khan’s ascension and the downfall of the PML-N and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But Khan’s PTI was not always in line to seize government. The party had little early success and failed to win a seat in the 1997 general election. In 2008, Khan was placed under house arrest for supporting the All Parties’ Democratic Movement against President — and former general — Pervez Musharraf; the PTI subsequently chose to boycott the elections. Yet civil-military conflict under Nawaz Sharif’s rule gave PTI an opening.
Sharif had a long and contentious relationship with the security establishment. In 1993, the military forced him out of office due a constitutional crisis and in 1999 he was overthrown by General Musharraf. In 2013, Sharif became Prime Minister for a third time — but his relationship with the military deteriorated when he tried to bring elements of foreign policy and national security into the civil domain. In April 2017, the military showed its hand again; a public meeting between Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa signalled that the security establishment would support Khan in the general election.
Although vote rigging likely contributed to his victory, Khan’s success can also be attributed to his support in the populous working class provinces of Punjab and Khyper Pahtunkhwa. The PTI was founded on the ideology of Mohammed Iqbal and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (two fathers of modern Pakistan) and Khan has long advocated for an Islamic democratic culture providing social security, welfare and the rule of law. Khan, who campaigned on a nationalist and populist platform, is perceived by many as being “above politics”; he appealed to the working classes who have long been negated by the PML-N and the “electables” (candidates with significant social clout unlikely to lose) and Pakistanis frustrated with Sharif’s corruption scandals.
POLITICAL REFORM OR REVERSE
The first challenge Khan will have to face is Pakistan’s foreign reserves crisis. China’s $57 billion infrastructure investment corridor, connecting the “One Belt One Road” project to key strategic locations such as Gwadar Port and the financial hub of Karachi, has fuelled demand for imports and increased national debt. Consequently, Pakistan’s foreign reserves fell from $17.5 billion in April to $9.66 Billion in June.
The new government is in talks with the IMF for a $12 billion bailout, which will likely put Khan in a difficult political position. The IMF will demand tightening of fiscal policy, in conflict with the PTI’s campaign promise to increase expenditure and turn Pakistan into a “Islamic welfare state”. The IMF will also demand greater transparency around foreign investment, a move which will antagonise Beijing, which values discretion in its infrastructure deals. Given the country’s heavy reliance on China — Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” — Khan will have to choose between fiscal stability and upsetting key political allies.
Relations between the US and Pakistan are unlikely to improve during Khan’s tenure. Pakistan has long been viewed by Washington as a foreign policy conundrum. Once an important Cold War ally, Pakistan maintains a nuclear capacity estimated at 100-120 warheads and refuses to sign various non-proliferation treaties. Pakistan is also a critical transport hub to support US troops in Afghanistan, but since the 1980s Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence is alledged to have provided support to various regional militant groups (to counter Indian military expansion), including those fighting US forces in Afghanistan.
During his time in opposition Khan campaigned against regional US military intervention, particularly US drone operations within Pakistan. Khan has been publicly empathetic towards the Taliban, advocating negotiation over military action. In contrast, President Donald Trump has taken several aggressive steps against Pakistan. In January, Trump tweeted that Pakistan was a “given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools”. He later cut a $1.3 billion annual military aid program, while in March the US sanctioned seven firms it believed to be assisting Islamabad’s nuclear development. Russia has already begun exploiting the tension, signing of a rare military co-operation pact in August that would allow Russians to train Pakistani officers.
It is unclear where the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and India will go. In previous governments the security establishment enforced the “status quo” regarding the territorial dispute over Kashmir. But while Khan articulated his disappointment with human rights violations in Kashmir in his first post-election speech, he also declared his intention to build diplomatic and trade ties with India. The new PM will have to be cautious how he navigates the delicate situation.
Finally, Khan will have to wrestle with his own political allies. The PTI failed to gain an absolute majority and Khan already faces tension within the coalition; a PTI spokesman stated that the alliance with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement was “out of compulsion to acquire a simple majority”. Khan also has a past with the Pakistani Muslim League-Quaid — he has previously described their supporters as “murderers” and the “biggest dacoit [armed robbers] in Punjab”. This leaves Khan vulnerable to the same political forces that brought him to power; if he antagonises the military, the generals can simply find grounds to coerce or persuade his coalition partners into withdrawing support.
Regardless of where he turns, the charismatic and popular Khan is seated under the sword of Damocles.