- - Wednesday, August 15, 2018

LAHORE — Hopes are riding high around Imran Khan, the legendary cricketer turned politician who is now slated to become Pakistan’s 19th prime minister, but doubts are also widespread that he will be able to overcome corruption that has long encumbered the South Asian nation’s government.

“Pakistan needs an honest leader like Imran who can deliver on his promises of providing jobs, security and eradicating corruption,” said Subhan Khan, a 19-year-old student at a local college in Peshawar. “He has not been tried before, and this is reason enough to support him.”

Others say such optimism might be misplaced. “How did Imran Khan reach this stage where he is in a position to become the PM?” asked Zunaira Naseem, a 22-year-old computer engineer in Lahore. “I don’t feel that with the same set of corrupt people in his own party he can change anything at all.”

Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 158 seats in the 342-member National Assembly — the nation’s decision-making lower house of parliament — in late July.

The assembly moved Wednesday to elect Khan ally Asad Qaiser as its speaker, clearing the path for the former cricket star to be voted in as prime minister, likely on Friday.

Mr. Khan, 65, who first emerged in politics in 1996 as an anti-corruption and justice advocate, has a cult following among Pakistan’s youths. He had a reputation as a playboy during his 1970s and ‘80s international cricket career.

His start in politics was slow. His PTI party failed to win a single seat in parliament in 1997, and he became the only PTI member to hold a seat five years later.

The momentum shifted in 2008 when Mr. Khan made his first major international headlines as a politician by boycotting Pakistan’s elections to protest the military government in Islamabad.

With its national stature raised, the PTI stood third among all parties in Pakistan’s 2013 elections, setting the stage for what would become Mr. Khan’s yearslong campaign against Nawaz Sharif. The effort culminated with Mr. Sharif’s ouster last year as prime minister and his imprisonment.

Throughout his rise, Mr. Khan has promised to lead a “new Pakistan” free of dynastic politics. But his critics see him as nothing more than a pawn of the nation’s powerful military, which had a fractious relationship with Sharif and is widely perceived to have backed Mr. Khan’s campaign for the prime minister’s ouster.

Although Mr. Khan has never served in Pakistan’s armed forces, he is often called the military’s “favorite son.” The consensus among analysts is that the country’s defense leaders will steer his foreign policy.

“Our nuclear posture and foreign policy will not be determined by Imran Khan,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and civil rights activist in Islamabad.

“Unless his handlers want otherwise,” Mr. Hoodbhoy said, “there will be no change in relations with the U.S., India or our other neighbors.”

He said he fears Pakistan will remain captive to Saudi Arabia, particularly with regard to following Riyadh’s bare-knuckled military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The incoming Khan government will be “never daring to even squeak when Yemen’s schoolchildren are targeted by the Saudi-led coalition’s air force and being forced to clap every time a Houthi missile is intercepted,” Mr. Hoodbhoy said.

Others say Mr. Khan’s biggest challenge domestically centers on his nation’s anticipated need for an International Monetary Fund bailout package.

Fasi Zaka, a Pakistan-based political commentator and radio talk show host, said he doesn’t see Mr. Khan formulating a serious financial plan for the country.

“Fiscal space has tightened, so we could expect a lot in terms of form rather than substance,” he said. “Early appointments haven’t given the impression that a tight meritocratic ship is coming — the PTI’s internal difficulties and coalition-building is in effect doing much the same as previous government-elects as they set up.”

Against that backdrop, other questions linger over the extent to which Mr. Khan has the power or will to follow through on his promise to rein in public-sector corruption.

“Imran or no Imran, the ordinary man will see the world go on pretty much the same as earlier,” said Mr. Hoodbhoy. “A few more bad guys will get dragged off to jail, but it will be just cosmetics.”

Mr. Khan’s July election win has been a subject of public acrimony and division in Pakistan.

International observers have characterized the vote as one of the dirtiest in the country’s history, with charges of poll-rigging and media-gagging, as well as intimidation of leaders from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party and another rival group, the left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party.

The “elections took place against a background of allegations of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the role of the judiciary as a political actor,” the European Union Election Observation Mission said in a statement after the July vote.

“Media outlets and journalists suffer from severe restrictions and curtailment on freedom of expression, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of self-censorship,” the mission said.

In the run-up to the vote, Mr. Khan mocked Pakistani feminists and liberals. He was also seen to side with ultraradical Islamists by supporting Pakistan’s severe blasphemy laws.

Some go so far as to claim he has an affinity for the Taliban.

In 2013, when news emerged that Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed by a U.S. drone strike, Mr. Khan threatened to blockade NATO operations in Pakistan.

He led protests blaming the government in Islamabad for allowing Washington to carry out such strikes. His message was aligned at the time with Pakistan’s military, which argued that the drone strikes violated Pakistani sovereignty, but he was also reported to be personally angered the same year when Taliban commander Waliur Rehman was killed by such a strike. In a tweet, he called Rehman “pro-peace” and described his killing as unacceptable.

Mr. Khan has framed such overtures as fitting with the goal of achieving peace with the militants. After the Rehman killing, he offered offices in Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban so that peace talks might progress with the group.

In 2014, the Pakistani Taliban nominated Mr. Khan to mediate peace talks with government negotiators. More recently, his PTI party granted $7.8 million to a madrassa led by Samiul Haq, whom Western analysts have described as the “Father of the Taliban.” The Islamic school is a known alma mater of numerous militants.

However, Mr. Khan has also been known to remain quiet after some Taliban developments. When Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah was killed by a U.S. drone strike this year, he chose to not say anything.

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