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Crusader Khan Faces Daunting Task To Build 'New Pakistan'

supporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party Imran Khan stands next to poster with a picture of Khan as they gather near his residence in Islamabad on July 26.

Imran Khan, once ridiculed as "Imran Khan't" for his political struggles in Pakistan, now has the chance to show that he can, indeed, realize his dream of a "new Pakistan."

By sweeping out the country's old political dynasties, Khan's victory in the July 25 national elections has made him the front-runner to become prime minister, and raised hopes for a new political direction.

The former cricket star faces daunting obstacles, however. Corruption is entrenched, the country is in the grip of a mounting economic crisis, and the all-powerful army is bent on maintaining its oversize role in Pakistan's domestic and foreign affairs.

The 65-year-old's choice of allies as he campaigned could also tie his hands, analysts say. Khan resorted to the tactics of patronage that he has previously condemned, courting powerful Pakistani elites who mobilized votes for him. Senior members of his Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party also include politicians he poached from rival parties.

"At first blush, Khan's win certainly represents a major break from the past, in that someone without ties to family dynasties or established parties has made it to the top," says Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "However, the deeper you dig, the easier it is to poke holes in this idea of Khan as something incredibly new."

'Rude Awakening'

Khan ran on a populist, anticorruption platform. He characterized his campaign as a battle against a political elite -- dominated for decades by the parties of jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto -- that he accused of preying on the poor.

He pledged that his future government would launch an anticorruption campaign and poverty-reduction program. Khan also promised to build an "Islamic welfare state," create 10 million new jobs, and build 5 million homes for the poor.
But Pakistan's economic crisis is likely to require a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the likely conditions of which could complicate Khan's spending pledges, say analysts.

Analysts also say Pakistan's low tax-collection rates -- the country has one of the world's lowest tax-to-GDP ratios -- is another obstacle.

"Khan could be in for a very early and rude awakening," says Kugelman. "Once his government takes office, it will face immediate challenges -- from a looming economic crisis to an angry and obstructionist political opposition."

Hands Are 'Tied'

Analysts also doubt Khan can radically change Pakistan's foreign policy, which is shaped by the army. Pakistan's military has ruled for approximately half the period since the country's independence in 1947, staging coups three times.

If he does try to take an independent path, civilian-military relations could face a new crisis and his job could be undercut if not outright imperiled."
-- Michael Kugelman, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Khan's foreign policy views have raised eyebrows. He has voiced opposition to China's huge investment in Pakistan, which has racked up billions of dollars in debt to Beijing.

He has offered an olive branch to archrival India, saying he wanted new "trade ties" with Delhi and that the two nuclear-armed states should resolve a long-standing dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Khan has also been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan and of U.S. drone strikes against militants in Pakistan.

His vision contrasts with the military establishment's core policies: maintaining strong ties with China, Pakistan's main political and economic ally; fostering cooperation with the United States, which provides Islamabad with billions in military aid and hardware; and using militant groups to expand its influence in Afghanistan and keep pressure on India.

Imran Khan addresses the nation at his residence in Islamabad the day after general elections. His foreign policy views have raised eyebrows.
Imran Khan addresses the nation at his residence in Islamabad the day after general elections. His foreign policy views have raised eyebrows.

"Khan's hands will be tied by the military," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military analyst and author. "But he is also someone who does not have a global vision. His focus will be on domestic issues."

Analysts say Khan faces a conundrum on the foreign policy front: He will bring little change if he defers to the army, but if he pursues his own agenda he will not last long in office.

"The question is whether Khan, who is proud and stubborn, can suppress his tendencies to push back, in the interest of maintaining power. Or, whether his strong personality will get the best of him and he does try to blaze an independent trail on foreign policy," says Kugelman.

"If he does try to take an independent path, civilian-military relations could face a new crisis and his job could be undercut, if not outright imperiled," he adds.

Former Prime Minister Sharif learned this the hard way.

Once close to the army, he fell out spectacularly with the military establishment over attempts to change the country's policies on India and Afghanistan and to curb the army's influence at home.

Sharif was dismissed from office by the Supreme Court in July 2017 for allegedly concealing assets abroad and other corruption allegations. He denies any wrongdoing. He has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison, a sentence he is appealing.

Allies of the three-time prime minister, who was toppled in a military coup in 1999, have called the proceedings a political vendetta and suggested the army might be behind it.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.