Pakistan’s incoming prime minister deserves his chance
Next week in Islamabad, an ambitious new incumbent will take up arguably the most perilous assignment in global democratic politics. The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party claimed a near majority in last month’s general election, will become the country’s 18th prime minister.
But he will take the oath knowing that none of the previous 17 finished a full term. The last of them, three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, currently sits in jail. And despite the rash of elected heads, Pakistan has had a democratically elected government at the helm for less than half of its 71-year history; the rest of the time it has been under military rule. More than 70 years since its formation from the partition of British India in 1947, Pakistan has made many failed attempts to bed down a stable political architecture.
But notwithstanding the poisoned chalice Khan has been handed, the nearly unsolvable economic crisis he inherits, the widespread belief that he was the army’s preferred candidate for prime minister, and his populist cocktail of hard-line and liberal beliefs, his election victory must be seen under the circumstances as a positive outcome. All democracies periodically need new voices and injections of new energies.
In the decade of democratic competition since the last spell of military rule (the regime of Pervez Musharraf between 1999 and 2008), the governments run by the two major political parties (the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) had done little to improve the reputation of democracy in the country.
Additionally, both parties had shown signs of sinking into the decadence most common in South Asian politics: That of making a political party a family affair, and the top job a monopoly of those with the same surname. In this environment, the PTI — founded in 1996 but not really a major player until 2011 — struck a powerful chord among the electorate.
When Imran Khan takes the oath in Islamabad next week, the skeptics will greatly outnumber the believers.
It helped — as it increasingly does in democratic politics worldwide these days — that Khan had a public life and past achievements in a realm other than politics. Between 1975 and 1995, no Pakistani enjoyed greater popularity than the dashing, imperious, Oxford-educated cricketer.
He seemed even more at ease in London than Karachi or Lahore, a suspicion confirmed when in 1995 he married a British heiress 22 years his junior: Jemima Goldsmith. Unlike other Pakistanis, his popularity stretched into India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Khan’s cricketing life came to a crescendo when his inexperienced team won the World Cup in 1992. He won the hearts of people across the subcontinent when he dedicated his victory to his late mother, who had lost her life to cancer. He spent the decade fundraising for a state-of-the-art cancer hospital in her name.
All this gave him great credibility when he entered politics in 1996. But it took him more than 20 years to find a political strategy commensurate to his desire to rule his country. And that political ideology is by no means the liberal and cosmopolitan one expected of someone with Khan’s background.
If anything, he could be accused of taking his return flight from his Westernized past a few stops too far (he now calls many of his liberal critics in the Pakistani media “Westoxified”). The leader who made many unpopular and brave decisions on the cricket field has proved rather tamer and more predictable in the arena of politics.
His rhetoric on freedom and justice is impressive, his actual record on defending these values rather less so, especially in the realm of gender. In 2006, the former husband of a London socialite (he had by now divorced Goldsmith) shocked many by voting against amendments to Pakistan’s notorious Hudood ordinances, which made women liable to a charge of adultery when they reported a case of rape. Nor has he spoken out very strongly against the Taliban.
Even so, his vision — expressed with some force and conviction in a televised speech on the day of his victory in the last week of July — of an Islamic welfare state naturally appeals to Pakistan’s poor and disenfranchised, who have been badly let down by the ruling elite.
Whatever its conflicts with the demands of liberalism and modernity, this manifesto is only a logical extension of Pakistan’s origin as an Islamic republic. And Khan’s decision not to live in the lavish prime minister’s residence, and instead turn it into an educational institution, is a striking one. No matter how long his coalition government lasts, future prime ministers will embarrass themselves if they revoke the decision.
There is hope that with his long record of engagement with civil society in India, he will be able to summon a similarly out-of-the-box gesture to reignite a peace process that seasoned politicians from both countries have been unable to take forward for close to two decades.
When this charismatic but flawed populist takes the oath in Islamabad next week, the skeptics will greatly outnumber the believers. But without figures to hold out hope — however faint — of new beginnings, would there be any point to democracy and elections?
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy.