Pakistanʹs premier Imran Khan

Playboy turned politician

Clad in traditional shalwar kameez and rolling rosary beads in his right hand, Pakistanʹs new prime minister, Imran Khan, recently took office. He promises change, yet what form will such change take? Afshan Subohi has the details

Pakistanis long for peace and prosperity – and they are fed up of their archaic establishment. In three different elections, they have voted three different parties into power. Military rule ended when Pervez Musharraf resigned as president in 2008. Shortly before the general election in the same year, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated; her Pakistan Peopleʹs Party (PPP), however, romped home on a sympathy vote. Five years later, voters kicked the PPP out and Nawaz Sharif of the PMLN (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz) became prime minister.

Many people now hope that Imran Khan will deliver the peaceful and productive future that neither the PPP nor the PMLN have managed to bring about. The PPP remains dominated by the Bhutto clan and the PMLN by the Sharif family. Both are embroiled in multiple cases of corruption. Whether the PTI will prove to be different remains to be seen.

Khan is a former cricket star. Led by him, Pakistanʹs team won the world cup in 1992. He became politicised after retirement and raised his profile through philanthropy. Casting off his former playboy image, Khan has since cultivated his political profile as a God-fearing Muslim. A senior analyst calls him a "flamboyant icon of the past" who has emerged has an "engaging politician".

A modest existence rather than pomp and circumstance

Khanʹs first TV address to the nation focused on austerity and accountability. He pledged to reside in a small three-bedroom house and turn the palatial prime ministerial residence in Islamabad into a university. He said he needs only two servants, whereas 500 were formerly engaged for the upkeep of the luxurious PM House.

In a speech following his election victory Khan spent 70 minutes addressing many issues of public concern. He spoke of employment, education, agriculture, water, healthcare and the environment. He mentioned inflation as well as the budget and current account deficits, but he shied away from the most controversial economic policy issue. He did not make a commitment on whether he will or will not turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bail-out.

Pakistanʹs exchange rate has nosedived recently and the countryʹs foreign-exchange reserves are dwindling. A crisis is brewing. During the campaign, Khan promised to create an “Islamic welfare state”, but the country lacks the revenue for major investments in social services.

U.S. and Pakistani flags (photo: AFP/Getty Images/M. Ralston)
On a collision course with the newly elected government in Islamabad: out of dissatisfaction with the fight against Islamic terrorist groups, the Trump administration has cut essential military aid to Pakistan – the agreed sum of 300 million U.S. dollars will not be paid out. The reason? Pakistan had failed to take "decisive action" against insurgents. The move constitutes a heavy blow for Imran Khanʹs newly elected government, which is already facing a severe economic crisis and is likely to have to seek support from the International Monetary Fund if the country is to remain solvent

He mentioned the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in the context of which Beijing has granted Pakistan huge loans. Unlike former prime ministers, he did not seem too excited about Chinaʹs engagement. Yet he still passed no comment on how he will handle the CPEC-induced debt burden.

The third corner of a "trouble triangle"

Khan announced he will make the government lean and clean. Whistle-blowers in the public service – especially in revenue collection – are not only to get legal protection. Khan said he will design an incentive package to motivate them.

Another important topic Khan failed to mention was the Islamist militants who have claimed thousands of lives in the past two decades. His approach to foreign affairs also remains unclear, preferring to play it safe and merely express the hope of being on good terms with all Pakistanʹs neighbours.

Having been disappointed by previous governments, people are hoping that Khan will prove better. There are however doubts. One observer says that the world is becoming increasingly unpredictable and alarming. The misdirection of populist sentiments has given rise to Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the USA. He regards Khan as the third corner of a "trouble triangle".

This observer voted for the PMLN because the Sharifs took on the military establishment. In contrast, Khanʹs campaign found support in military circles.

One business leader said that he would wait for three months "before giving Khan his unconditional support". His decision will depend on what the new prime minister does to weed out corruption and make business easier.

According to an expert from the Pakistan Business Council, a private think tank, the crucial issue is how the PTI government will handle the balance-of-payment problems. If that goes well, he is confident that the economy can grow at a sustained rate of seven percent annually. Unfortunately, that is quite a big "if".

Afshan Subohi

© Development and Cooperation | D+C 2018

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