Irish Times view on Imran Khan’s victory in Pakistan’s elections

Former cricket captain and socialite faces major problem delivering on heavyweight popular expectation

A man walks past an election poster of the victorious Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, at a market in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photograph: Anjum Naveed/AP Photo

A man walks past an election poster of the victorious Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, at a market in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photograph: Anjum Naveed/AP Photo

 

Imran Khan’s victory in Pakistan’s general elections falls short of an overall majority but heralds a breakthrough in a country whose politics have hitherto been dominated by two large dynastic parties which have governed alongside the powerful military since independence 71 years ago. Khan’s party campaigned against corruption, promises political reform, and is pledged to increase welfare and education spending. That will be difficult to deliver because of a looming balance-of-payment crisis and continuing political interference from the military and judiciary who backed his party by restricting media freedoms and harassing his mainstream opponents.

Now 66, he has little direct political experience of governing, although he has strength and legitimacy from his perseverance and perceived outsider status

Khan’s colourful history as a celebrity cricket captain and socialite gave him a strong start as an individual critic of Pakistan’s political and military establishment, but it has taken him 22 years to make this breakthrough after trailing in previous elections. Now 66, he has little direct political experience of governing, although he has strength and legitimacy from his perseverance and perceived outsider status.

Khan, 64, has denied Gulalai’s allegations and said he would not comment on the claims unless she released the messages. bPhotograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Imran Khan’s colourful history as a celebrity cricket captain and socialite gave him a strong start as an individual critic of Pakistan’s political and military establishment. File photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

His Tehreek-e-Insaf party has drawn support from others and from a younger generation impatient with the alternatives. Over the years he has swung towards traditional Islamic positions to spread his appeal. He has also courted the military. On this occasion they are widely believed to favour him as a probable minority and pliable prime minister facing a tricky set of domestic and foreign policy issues for which he will need their support. Widespread arrests of media and political critics during the campaign, including the jailing last year on corruption charges of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif helped Khan succeed. Election observers complain of a military role in vote tampering too.

Khan has been critical of the US, notably when the Trump administration withdrew military aid over Afghan policy

Pakistan faces a serious balance-of-payments problem. Five per cent growth in recent years has pulled in more imports, made more expensive by higher international oil prices and funded by borrowing and currency depreciation. Another loan from the International Monetary Fund is widely predicted. That would involve restrictions on public spending, affecting the new government’s plans to boost welfare and extend education.

Imran Khan after casting his vote in the general election, in Islamabad, on Wednesday. As prime minister his top challenges will be to strengthen institutions and stamp out corruption. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images
Imran Khan after casting his vote in the general election, in Islamabad. As prime minister his top challenges will be to strengthen institutions and stamp out corruption. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan has become more dependent on China for large-scale infrastructure investment and loans, a relationship bolstered by geopolitical developments in the region, including continuing tension with India over Kashmir and with the US over Afghanistan. These foreign policy issues are usually dominated and claimed by the military.

Khan has been critical of the US, notably when the Trump administration withdrew military aid over Afghan policy. Prospects for him to take major international initiatives are limited, since he will have to grapple with domestic policies and how to tailor them to available resources. He will have goodwill for this effort but faces a major problem delivering on popular expectations.

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