Aug 2nd 2018
A WEEK after a general election rocked by
suspicions of fraud, the dust is beginning to settle. It looks all but certain
that Imran Khan, a former captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, will be sworn in
as the country’s next prime minister. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
(PTI), will dominate the legislature. The outgoing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz
(PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party cried foul, noting that the army had
come out strongly in Mr Khan’s favour, muzzling the press and sending security
agents to meddle in polling stations. But the fact that these two ancient
rivals are now making common cause as the loyal opposition suggests that they
accept the result. Few Pakistanis want endless street protests and political
turmoil. So the democratic show rolls on. For the second time in Pakistani history,
power has been democratically transferred.
For over two decades Mr Khan has railed
against a sleazy system of hereditary politicians and patronage networks. Yet
this is the first time the PTI has shown a broadly national appeal in a country
of 207m. Its 4m more votes than the PML-N represent a notable popular victory,
one only partly undermined by vote-rigging allegations. Most remarkable is the
PTI’s win in Karachi, a city of powerful local machines and thuggish street
politics. The PTI may yet wrest Punjab, the country’s bread basket and most
populous province, from the PML-N. That would cap a remarkable fall for the
Sharif brothers: Nawaz, the “Lion of Punjab”, who was prime minister until last
year and is now in jail facing corruption charges, and Shahbaz, Punjab’s former
Yes, He Khan
Mr Khan, who now commands about 115 seats
in the National Assembly, still needs a handful of allies—independents and
smaller parties—in order to govern. The PTI’s chief bankroller, Jahangir
Tareen, has been flattering independents by flying them in to Islamabad, the
capital, on his private jet. The grubby promises to them are the kind of thing
Mr Khan used to decry. His wooing of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, the
most unsavoury of Karachi’s parties, is making some PTI leaders gag. But at
least it means that Mr Khan does not need radical Islamist parties to form a
governing coalition. Before the election, he pandered to zealots.
Meanwhile, over the economy there is no
time to lose. Not for the first time, an incoming government faces a
balance-of-payments crisis. The current-account deficit has widened and the
currency is sliding. Pakistan imports three-quarters of all its energy needs.
Yet foreign-exchange reserves are down to just $9bn—barely two months’ import
cover. An IMF bail-out, of perhaps $12bn, looks all but inevitable. Negotiating
one will require finesse. Pakistan is in hock to China which, through a
ballyhooed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has promised $62bn of
infrastructure spending. This week America’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo,
insisted that his country would block any IMF bail-out that profited China. The
task of stitching a deal together will fall to Asad Umar, Mr Khan’s probable
finance minister. He is a good choice: the former head of Engro, the country’s
biggest private conglomerate, Mr Umar is reform-minded and admired.
The terms of an IMF deal will bring a
populist party down to earth—so much for Mr Khan’s wild promises of an “Islamic
welfare state”. The next challenge is the electricity sector. In office, the
PML-N did much to fix Pakistan’s notorious blackouts, helped by China building
new capacity. But a tangle of debts among state generators, energy suppliers
and banks has been exacerbated by theft from the grid. This can be resolved by
reducing subsidies, raising energy taxes and recapitalising state entities. Mr
Khan has long bemoaned Pakistan’s institutional decay. Renewal starts with
fixing the electricity mess.
Then come security and foreign policy.
Islamist violence marred the election and is a constant threat to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the regional situation grows trickier, with rivalry between America
and China, and China and India. That comes on top of rocky relations with
America itself, the festering sore of war-torn Afghanistan to the north-west,
and Pakistan’s age-old and bitter animosity towards India.
Mr Khan would seem ill-suited for these
challenges. He has been more critical of America, especially over its use of
drones to kill jihadists, than of the extremists themselves. And he is pally
with an army that is the chief obstacle to better relations with India, the
There is room for surprises, though. Under
Nawaz Sharif, the civilian government and the army clashed. The generals
distrusted, and then thwarted, Mr Sharif’s overtures to his Indian counterpart,
Narendra Modi. Relations with India, they make it clear, are their remit. But
perhaps, says Sehar Tariq of the United States Institute of Peace, “harmony”
between civilian rulers and the army (ie, civilian subservience) could “reap
dividends” over India. High-level exchanges have recently taken place between
the two countries’ armed forces. Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, is
relatively doveish towards India, acknowledging that home-grown Jihadism is a
far greater threat to Pakistan. Pakistan, via the generals, may yet find the
will to seek better Indian ties.
One day, though, Mr Khan will surely clash
with the generals. He speaks of opening the border with Afghanistan, an idea at
odds with the 2,300km-long fence the army wants to build. And he wants to spend
heavily on health and education, money which can only be found by crimping the
armed forces’ budget. Farooq Tirmizi, an analyst, predicts a fight that will
come down to “guns versus textbooks”.
But that is for the future. For now, Mr
Khan, who has seldom attended parliamentary sessions and who has described the
assembly as “the most boring place on earth”, must find a sense of dedication,
detail and compromise that has evaded him till now. He must learn to work with
a political class he has only slammed. And he must gently let down his most
enthusiastic supporters from the irresponsible highs he generated for them—for
instance, by promising to end corruption within 90 days. It will require dogged
strength, which he has in abundance, and humility—which, equally, he lacks.
Over to the captain.