Imran Khan has won over Pakistan. But real power still lies with the army

It is now certain that Imran Khan will lead Pakistan’s next government. But how much power will he really wield, and what can Pakistan and the world expect? Khan’s victory speech struck a conciliatory note, a welcome surprise to many after a vicious election campaign. He pledged to improve relations with Pakistan’s neighbours, India and Afghanistan, to widen the country’s tax base, stamp out corruption and improve governance.
Pakistan has been directly ruled by the military for more than half of its 71 years. In this nascent democracy, each election is a milestone: this was only the second transition from one democratically elected government to another. But Khan’s victory comes against a troubled backdrop. Over the past few months, the country has seen drastically ramped up censorship, with widespread allegations of military interference in favour of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Every single opposition party has rejected his win, alleging vote-rigging.

Regardless, 22 years after entering politics, the former cricketer is to be the country’s prime minister. I have spent the past few weeks in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and have heard countless people say something along the lines of “He can’t be worse than the others”. This is a symptom of a growing malaise with dynastic Pakistani politicians, who have swapped power between themselves for generations, appearing to do little more than enrich themselves.

Khan is, first and foremost, a populist. He has long railed against corruption. During the last election campaign in 2013, he pledged that he would eliminate major corruption in Pakistan in 90 days. Given Pakistan is currently ranked 117 out of 180 countries on the Transparency International index, this is quite the promise.

It is also worth looking at Khan’s bedfellows. A big factor in his victory this time around was defections by popular politicians from the other main parties. Khan refers to these politicians as “electables”. They might also be referred to as “corruptibles”, deeply enmeshed in the system that Khan wants to overhaul.

Another eye-catching promise he made was to create 10 million jobs over five years, but as Pakistan rattles towards an economic crisis and a possible international bailout, it is not clear how those jobs will emerge.
Around the world, Khan is still most famous as a cricket champion and international playboy who led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup. However, over the years, Khan’s attitudes have drastically shifted. He has embraced conservative Islam, recently marrying a spiritual teacher who wears a full face veil, giving interviews saying that he had never seen her face before they got married.

He raised eyebrows in Pakistan earlier this year when he defended the Taliban’s system of justice during an interview with BBC Hard Talk. For several years, he has been dubbed “Taliban Khan” in reference to his overtures to religious hardliners, and this interview appeared to confirm those suspicions. Over the last parliament session, the PTI has vehemently opposed a series of women’s rights bills in different provinces, including one in Punjab that criminalised domestic violence. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Khan’s party has led the provincial government since 2013, a similar bill failed to pass.
Perhaps one of the biggest questions about Khan’s government is how much power he will actually have. There is significant evidence of political manipulation by the military establishment during the run-up to the election. Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and leader of one of Pakistan’s main parties, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), was jailed earlier this month on corruption charges, in a move human rights advocates describe as selective targeting. In the days before Sharif’s arrest, nearly 500 members of his party were detained as the military took steps to prevent a protest. Sharif has consistently asserted civilian supremacy and tried to reduce the army’s role in public life. The military’s apparent support for Khan and the PTI is most likely down to a desire to keep Sharif out of power, rather than any special liking for Khan.
But his relationship with the military, coupled with the fact that he is likely to either be heading a coalition or to have a very small majority in parliament, will limit his power. Even when it is not in direct control of Pakistan, the army pulls strings behind the scenes, particularly on foreign policy and domestic security. It is unlikely that we will see serious steps towards the rapprochement with India and Afghanistan that Khan alluded to in his victory speech, given that it runs directly counter to the military’s strategy overseas.

In his courting of both hardline religious elements and the military establishment, Khan has shown himself willing to work with more or less anyone in the pursuit of power. It remains to be seen whether he will carve out a unifying path, making good on his promises to improve governance and take on the country’s crippling economic crisis – or whether the political expediency he has demonstrated thus far will leave him hamstrung.

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