What will Imran Khan’s Pakistan look like?

Pakistan’s new civilian setup, to be headed by the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is facing an extremely bumpy road to fix. Over the weekend, Khan’s centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) secured a lead over the Pakistan Muslim League to form a government in coalition with minor parties.

He faces an imminent economic shutdown, with the country’s foreign exchange reserves falling last month to as low as US$9.6 billion, barely enough to pay for one month of imports. Its balance of payments crisis has never been so pressing as today and its trade deficit has never been as high. The rupee has consequently been devalued massively against the US dollar. The magnitude of the crisis that Pakistan is facing today has never been so high, as Khan himself noted in his victory speech,

Despite the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure project, or maybe because of it, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen massively. On the foreign policy front, Pakistan’s relations with the US are cold. Afghanistan is still doubtful of Pakistan’s Taliban policy and China and Saudi Arabia couldn’t do much to block Pakistan’s placement on the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) gray-list.

Domestically, Khan is already facing the combined opposition of big and small parties, which have rejected the election, ignoring Khan’s offer in his victory speech to jointly investigate all such allegations. The opposition claims Khan is the military’s player, playing a fixed match, a perception widespread in the international media.

But while no elections in the history of Pakistan, except the 1970 elections that led to Pakistan’s eventual split, have been without such allegations, the PTI has clearly won enough votes to govern the corruption-riddled Punjab and his own northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KpK), bordering Afghanistan, as well as the central government.

Khan’s victory, however, has more ingredients than simple collusion with the state’s non-elected apparatus. Notwithstanding the allegations of his covert alliance with the military and even the judiciary, which has jailed the country’s former leader and Khan’s political rival Nawaz Sharif, the fact that Khan was able to win a majority is also due to his party’s relatively better performance in KkK and a perception of honesty and need for change among young and urban voters supporting him. He has promised clean government with no excesses for those in public office, a populist who says that he will deliver social services including education and health care for all.

A onetime London playboy who married – and divorced – the daughter of one of Britain’s richest men, he came into politics in 1996 promising a cleanup of corruption and has largely delivered in KpK.

Consequently, never in history had KpK elected a party twice in consecutive elections until it returned Khan’s centrist PTI twice, in 2013 and 2018. And PTI, as many from the province told Asia Sentinel, could never have won if it had not introduced productive reforms, positively changing the culture of governance, starting with thorough depoliticization of the police, and digitization of land-holding documents, a step that did virtually end corruption on a very basic and ground level that otherwise remains conspicuously present in all other provinces. He also improved the health sector. This is apart from PTI’s internationally acclaimed success in planting a “billion trees” in the province to bring back the terrorism-hit region’s natural beauty, build an eco-friendly economy, and attract tourism both from within and outside Pakistan.

While it was evident even before the elections that PTI would perform even better in the 2018 elections in KpK due to its better governance system, its success in Punjab, where the party lacks a strong structure, is not only due to the huge support base it has had in the province since 2012-13, but also because of the damage done to the otherwise powerful Pakistan Muslim League (N) due to its leadership’s alleged involvement in corruption.

In 2018, however, despite all allegations of rigging, the Muslim League has still emerged as the biggest party in Punjab, although Khan’s PTI now holds a majority of 132 seats to 129 by virtue of a coalition with minor parties and is able to form its own provincial government. That is important for PTI not only because it wants to showcase and repeat its KpK performance in Punjab, but also because without control of Punjab, the PTI-led central government will remain an awkward government, perennially locked in a political tussle with the biggest province.

Without control of Punjab, PTI can’t achieve the change it has been promising ever since its rise in 2011. But control over Punjab isn’t where Khan’s abilities will really be tested. His real test will be in bringing better governance, but it is something that he cannot do without first bringing civilian supremacy in Pakistan, where the balance of power, despite civilians ostensibly running the country since 2008, remains tilted to the Army.

Will Khan, therefore, start a power tussle vis-à-vis the Army? It looks unlikely.

Khan did give clues in his victory speech. For instance, while he seemed to simply toe the Army’s line on all major foreign policy issues, ranging from ties with the US, Iran, China, Afghanistan and India, he simply said no words about Pakistan’s own ‘war on terror.’

Significantly enough, one of the reasons for Sharif’s clash with the Army was their disagreement over Pakistan’s selective targeting of extremist outfits. While Sharif made sure that this disagreement, with Army as the silent protector of the ‘good Taliban’, was widely propagated both locally and internationally, Khan, who is largely known as ‘Taliban Khan’ for his support for reconciliation through dialogue rather than military operation, would have no such disagreement.

His Islamist tendencies, therefore, tend to sync his Taliban policy well with that of the Army, most likely to lead him to play a ‘win-win’ game with the Army rather than strongly assert, unlike Nawaz Sharif, his own authority as the country’s elected prime minister.

This ‘win-win’ game wouldn’t hurt his political standing; for, while the economy, foreign policy and terrorism remain major challenges, these are not the issues Khan built his election campaign upon. His major focus was corruption and governance, and if he remains pre-disposed towards these things, his chances of staying in power and complete his tenure would remain bright.

On the contrary, his ability to bring Pakistan out of the economic and foreign policy crisis remains limited. On these issues, it isn’t the civilian set-up that has the final say.

Therefore, while Khan’s Pakistan might be a better governed country than was previously the case and he might even be able to reform institutions as he was able to do in KpK. But his institutions still don’t have enough power to apprehend, for instance, corrupt Army generals, or bring the military as a state institution within the purview of accountability.

Therefore, if anything, Khan’s is likely to be at best be a hybrid regime based on calculated political reconciliation with the non-elected apparatus of the state, playing a cautious yet a ‘win-win’ game, rather than a supreme civilian setup, capable of bring sweeping reforms across the country and regardless of the supposed sanctity of any institution.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel