Those sceptical of Imran Khan’s intentions and his powers vis-à-vis Pakistan’s powerful military would like to wait and see if the new prime minister would be able to translate his words into deed
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) overcame one challenge after another to win the general election and come to a position to form the government, but it now faces bigger challenges to counter the strong opposition and implement its ambitious reforms agenda.
All speculations about a hung parliament proved wrong. Contrary to expectations, the PTI won seats in all the four provinces as earlier it was described as a party of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) having no real support in Sindh and Balochistan. Except Sindh, the party is poised to rule the remaining three provinces -- fully in Punjab and KP and as part of the ruling coalition in Balochistan.
Winning Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and the stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for years, was always going to be the toughest challenge. The PTI achieved the unimaginable by winning a significant number of seats in the Punjab Assembly and then manoeurving to attract the independent lawmakers and the small Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) to its side to overtake the PML-N and gain the majority. As in the centre, the PML-N-led opposition would give a tough time to the PTI in Punjab.
The first and foremost challenge for the PTI government would be to attain legitimacy as its victory has been disputed by most political parties. Allegations of rigging have been made, results challenged and the role of the Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker government, judiciary and even the military criticised for favouring the PTI.
As was the case during the PML-N’s term in power after the 2013 general election when the PTI claimed the polls were rigged in Nawaz Sharif’s favour and did everything from staging ‘dharna’ to waging court battles, the PML-N could pay it in the same coin. Unlike the PTI, which got support from Tahirul Qadri’s PAT only during the peak of its anti-rigging protest in Islamabad in 2014, the PML-N would get the backing of the other parties, such as the PPP, MMA, ANP, QWP, etc, that suffered defeat at the hands of the PTI.
As Imran Khan offered in his victory speech, his government could facilitate investigation into specific constituencies identified by the opposition parties to find out if irregularities were committed and polling rigged. He used to demand reopening of ballot papers of four National Assembly constituencies when he was in the opposition to ascertain the veracity of the results of the 2013 polls, but the Nawaz Sharif government refused to do so, resulting in a political crisis that snowballed and gradually weakened the hold of the prime minister on power. One is sure he will want to avoid such a situation by not being inflexible in the context of genuine opposition demands.
Much has been said about the economic problems that would stare the PTI government in the face as soon as it is installed. There has been talk of an IMF bailout being sought, though the expected finance minister, Asad Umar, denied any such decision being taken at this stage. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, tried to put a spanner in the works by opposing the likely IMF loan through his provocative statement that was directed both at China and Pakistan. This underscores the difficulties confronting Pakistan while balancing its relations with China and the US.
The commentators have pointed out that the economic challenges facing the newly elected PTI government were quite formidable, but not insurmountable. Questions are being asked if the PTI government would be willing and capable to build on the economic progress achieved under the PML-N government, or chart its own path for better results. It has been argued that economic reforms are successful if undertaken at the beginning of the term of a new government so that it can make adjustments along the way.
The PTI government is still in the making and its policies and reforms agenda would become gradually known as it settles in office. Imran Khan, the prime minister-in-waiting, gave a glimpse of things he intended to do in his 25-minute victory speech. However, these were vague ideas that would need fine-tuning in keeping with the ground realities.
He talked about seeking inspiration from the welfare state of Medina established by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), helping the poor and the downtrodden in attaining their rights, enabling farmers to stand on their feet and ensuring that all the people are treated equally and justly. If nothing else, whatever the PTI founder said in his speech created a feel-good atmosphere and raised the spirits of his supporters if not all Pakistanis.
Imran Khan also touched on foreign policy issues and mentioned six countries that were of utmost importance for Pakistan. Three of these countries -- China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- are friendly and the other three -- Afghanistan, India and the US -- are unfriendly. Imran Khan emphasised the need for strengthening relations with China, learning from it how to pull people out of poverty and achieving the full potential of CPEC and other economic initiatives.
In the context of Iran and Saudi Arabia, he wanted improved relations and playing the role of a facilitator for conciliation between the two arch-rivals in the Middle East. Nawaz Sharif had also aspired to play such a role without success and Pakistan Army chiefs, too, had explored the possibility of mediating the Iran-Saudi disputes without taking sides.
However, the foreign policy challenges are formidable in the context of mending fences with Afghanistan and the US and starting a dialogue with India. Imran Khan highlighted the suffering of the Afghan people and reiterated Islamabad’s resolve to work for peace in Afghanistan as it was linked to peace in Pakistan. He also brought the US into this equation by offering to help it bring peace to Afghanistan. In terms of Pakistan’s relations with the US, he advocated friendly ties on an equal basis.
For India, Imran Khan’s message was the need to revive the peace dialogue that has remained suspended since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. However, he qualified his offer by reminding India that the core issue of Kashmir would have to be discussed and resolved to be able to make the subcontinent peaceful, stable and prosperous.
All these are good intentions and Imran Khan received positive feedback for being friendly and forward-looking in his speech. His emphasis was on forgetting the past and moving ahead. The message was directed at both his political rivals and Pakistan’s two unfriendly neighbours and the world’s only superpower. However, those sceptical of Imran Khan’s intentions and his powers vis-à-vis Pakistan’s powerful military would like to wait and see if the new prime minister would be able to translate his words into deeds.