The former cricketer has presented little in the way of a substantial plan to fulfill his promise of a 'new Pakistan', writes Tom Hussain
Frontrunner Imran Khan has promised sweeping reforms against cronyism and corruption – but has yet to show how he plans to achieve them
Former cricket star Imran Khan is currently the frontrunner to emerge victorious from Pakistan’s general election on July 25. His path to power has been eased by the Supreme Court’s controversial decision last July to disqualify his nemesis from holding public office.
Following the Panama Papers’ revelation that Nawaz Sharif had substantial overseas holdings, Khan and his allies lodged a petition that led to the court’s ruling, disqualifying the three-time former prime minister from running – and leaving the way clear for Khan to surge ahead.
The ex-cricketer first emerged as the nation’s saviour from the tainted rule of the Sharif and Bhutto dynasties, which have held sway over Pakistan's politics for more than 40 years, after leading his nation's team to a world cup victory in 1992.
While his high profile status did not equate to votes in the 1990s, he seemed to have potential as a prime ministerial candidate in the early years of Pervez Musharraf's rule. For a short while, he was treated to matching protocol by the military ruler, before being abandoned in favour of more pliable politicians.
Undeterred, he then reappeared during the Lawyers' Movement, which forced Musharraf to restore democracy, but he demonstrated poor political judgment in boycotting the 2008 general election. Since then, he has chosen agitation and litigation as his primary means of upending the established political order.
His rival Sharif now faces the prospect of imprisonment on charges of allegedly money laundering the proceeds of corruption so he might not be able to campaign on behalf of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. Nor would he be in a position to promote the prime ministerial aspirations of nominated successor Shahbaz Sharif, his younger brother and the long-serving chief minister of populous Punjab province.
Instead, the elder Sharif is engrossed in a confrontation with the super-activist judiciary and an increasingly overbearing military, long considered the ultimate arbiter of political power in Pakistan. He claims both institutions have connived to undermine the executive authority of the elected government and has staked his waning political career on a campaign to protect the sanctity of the popular vote.
In a recent interview, Sharif ratcheted up the rhetoric by insinuating his ouster was punishment for his attempts, as prime minister, to pressure the military into abandoning its alleged support for militant groups involved in cross-border terrorism.
He said the military’s obstinacy has rendered Pakistan diplomatically isolated and subject to punitive US sanctions and has also stymied the country’s economic growth prospects, despite billions of dollars in funding under China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Sharif has embarked on what is widely considered to be an unwinnable war against the military.
It is in this respect, eager not to become collateral casualties, that PML-N members of the outgoing parliament and provincial assemblies have been defecting in droves to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, greatly improving its chances of forming the next government.
This power struggle is consistent with the historical character of Pakistan’s. Generally, instead of prioritising the multitude of challenges facing the country, the pillars of the state have indulged in a Game of Thrones-style power play. Indeed, no facet of Pakistan’s governance has been spared from their demonising post-truth narratives.
The cost of their collective ineptitude was demonstrated in March. After an unscheduled meeting in Washington with US Vice President Mike Pence to discuss rising diplomatic tensions over cross-border terrorism, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was accused of compromising national security interests by excluding a military representative. The military-controlled foreign ministry waited a week before saying the absurd accusations were untrue.
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Meanwhile, nothing substantial was done to forestall the imminent reinstatement of Pakistan on the terrorism funding watchlist on the multilateral Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, or to head off any other punitive measures initiated by the US.
As with Sharif’s attempt to portray his tussle with the military as a fight between democracy and terrorist sponsors, the humiliation of Mr Abbasi demonstrates how Pakistan’s collective national interest ranks a distant second to the power-crazed struggle of its rival decision makers.
The revival of the economy, Pakistan’s biggest success story of the last four years since the defeat of an eight-year insurgency by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan militants, has been also demonised for selfish political ends.
Against a backdrop of bickering over budgetary allocations, Sharif’s rivals have cast an alarmist pall over the government’s growth-driven debt management policies.
As is often the case with economics, the creation of negative expectations among consumers and investors might become a self-fulfilling prophecy – with serious implications for Pakistan’s Chinese-funded aim of becoming a middle income economy by 2030.
The blinkered irresponsibility of these state actors contrasts starkly with the national motto of “unity, faith and discipline”, the mission statement provided by Pakistan’s founding father. Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
There is little, if any, reason to believe the divisive tone of Pakistan’s politics would change under the prospective leadership of Khan.
He describes himself as a reformer and has vowed to introduce sweeping reforms against the corruption, cronyism and bad governance which has hobbled Pakistan's progress for decades. But he has presented little in the way of a substantial plan to fulfill his promise of a “new Pakistan”.
Khan’s political narrative has been belied by post-truth rhetoric and the induction of notorious political turncoats into his party.
Nor has his party’s government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province lived up to his promise.
And his improved chances of winning the forthcoming election are less a reflection of his personal popularity or that of his party and more a consequence of Sharif’s grudge match with the military.
Were Khan to become prime minister, he would lead a shaky coalition. It would be more vulnerable to polarised politics than the Sharif administration, which enjoyed a comfortable parliamentary majority. Any attempt to reform Pakistan’s failed diplomatic policies without the military’s approval would weaken his authority and, in the event of a standoff, probably lead to his ouster.
That leaves little optimism for the prospect of Khan as prime minister. No matter the outcome, the forthcoming election is only likely to deepen the crisis currently faced by Pakistan.
Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad