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Imran Khan and His Naya Pakistan

Much will depend on how much autonomy the military and the establishment permit.

S Akbar Zaidi writes:

Simplistic and clichéd parallels are being drawn between Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and a number of right-wing populist-elected leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte. Most right-wing-elected leaders have fairly similar strains, and one can identify some characteristics found in others. But specific contexts, conditions and histories make such parallels and comparisons weak and meaningless. Hence, to claim as many have, that Khan is “a Modi” or “a Trump,” is not only incorrect, but undermines numerous specificities that categorise each political leader. Moreover, who or what Khan will be depends crucially on what he is allowed to become by institutions that are far stronger than him, such as the military, to whom he is beholden.

To begin with, Pakistan’s 11th general elections were neither free nor fair. Extensive documentation and evidence, as well as anecdotes and allegations, suggest that prepoll rigging had taken place many months in advance. Moreover, there are numerous signs that even on 25 July, election day, transparency was lacking in the way the results were announced. Since this was a closely contested election, with the margin between the winner and loser often very small in dozens of constituencies, returning officers rejected many more votes than the difference between the winning and losing candidate. In a number of these constituencies, the request for a recount was denied.

Apart from the better-known prepoll rigging devices, which included the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his subsequent incarceration, the control of the media by the military, and the overtly partial attitude of the judiciary, new political parties were created and propped up by the establishment to undermine the vote of the supporters of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML–N). A key example of this was the creation of an Islamic party, backed by the military, called the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which undercut the PML–N’s vote resulting in a loss of 13 potential seats to the party. Other examples include former PML–N members of assemblies who were persuaded to shift alliances and either join Khan or contest as independents, a category now derogatorily termed “the Electables.”

If one acknowledges that these were neither fair nor free elections, and the sole purpose was to ensure that Sharif’s party did not get re-elected at any cost, then analysis by social scientists about what the vote reveals is incomplete, and probably wrong. Prepoll surveys indicated that the PML–N would win and emerge as the largest party in the Punjab and at the centre, assuming that this would have been a fair election. If that were to happen, analysis about the results would have been very different. With elections rigged in Khan’s favour, some analysts are claiming that these elections were “about corruption,” and that Khan’s victory represents a victory of Pakistan’s new middle classes. It is difficult to say if this was indeed the case, and anyone trying to explain these results using social science criteria will need to be particularly careful of the claims they make. There is too much evidence and as many counterclaims to make very different assertions.

Nevertheless, Khan will be Pakistan’s 19th Prime Minister next week, and Pakistan, its neighbours and the world will have to live with this reality. Not having had any experience in governing at any level, and also bringing in a team of very inexperienced, first-time ministers, many of Khan’s supporters expect this to bring a fresh and clean approach to politics and public representation, part of his Naya Pakistan. Yet, Khan will face the strongest opposition in parliament since 1988 when Benazir Bhutto was then the new fresh face in Pakistan’s politics. This time, most of those opposing government are far more experienced in the game of Pakistani politics than those who will form government. Even in the Punjab, Khan’s candidate will face a particularly hostile opposition.

Considered to be authoritarian, dogmatic, arrogant, and impatient, how Khan overcomes such personal traits will be of particular significance to his and his government’s progress. His victory speech to Pakistan and the world, however, displayed none of these characteristics, and if anything, revealed disbelief more than any other sentiment. In a very sober and sobering address, the Prime Minister-designate spoke about social justice, inclusion, forgiveness, friendship, a clean and austere government, and better relations with all of Pakistan’s neighbours, as well as his personal new-found belief in Islamic principles best exemplified by the reference to Prophet Muhammad’s founding of the state of Medina in the 8th century, which he termed “an inspiration.”

With multiple contradictions surrounding both his personal and political lives, while Khan’s intention and resolve may be genuine and well-meaning, he has already had to compromise by including many politicians he previously denounced in order to meet his simple majority. Moreover, Pakistan’s political economy will offer particular challenges. With its overbearing and dominant military controlling how Pakistan interacts with its neighbours, and which is going to ask for its pound of flesh for having him elected, with huge economic dependence, and a hostile and experienced opposition, Naya Pakistan brings with it much of the old country Khan hopes to leave behind.

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a political economist based in Karachi.

Updated On : 7th Aug, 2018


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