Imran Khan’s election in Pakistan presents a global dilemma

The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has finally been accepted as Pakistan’s next prime minister. I say “finally” because the election commission managed to add to widespread concerns about the elections by inexplicably delaying its announcement of the outcome. Almost all of Pakistan’s parties, other than Khan’s, have contested the results; Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which won the last general election, tweeted about “manifest and massive irregularities” and argued that Pakistan’s democratization has been “pushed back decades.”

Sharif is right. The past year saw the disqualification of his brother Nawaz, the democratically elected prime minister, and then an election campaign that was throughout very far from fair. Most outside Pakistan will agree with Sharif and his colleagues in other parties, and question whether a government brought to power in this manner should be considered legitimate.

But where does that leave the rest of the world? Pakistan’s military establishment has, through its skillful management of this election, presented the world with a problem that has no easy solution.

Khan has been in the public eye for decades — for more than 20 years as an aspirant prime minister, and before that as the charismatic captain of Pakistan’s cricket team. When that team won the World Cup more than 25 years ago, Khan famously delivered a speech that was stunning in its egotism: He actually forgot to thank his young teammates. After his election victory, his teammates in the powerful establishment — the “boys,” as some Pakistanis euphemistically refer to them — will surely expect more tangible thanks.

But here’s the dilemma the rest of us face. On one hand, we have to continue to support Pakistan’s democratization — which means engaging with its civilian leadership, rather than the generals in Rawalpindi. On the other hand, do we want to help legitimize a government elected with the open support of the military?

You could argue that we should wait to see what sort of prime minister Khan becomes. But, frankly, our expectations should be low. Khan’s political positions in the past have been troubling — particularly his flirtation with the obscurantist religious right, which in Pakistan is very obscurantist indeed. For example, he has voted in favor of religious laws that make it impossible to prosecute rape cases.

During his campaign, he projected himself as a defender of Pakistan’s stringent and illiberal blasphemy law. It’s hard to imagine a Khan-led administration starting off doing anything other than what the military would want it to do — which is to protect those who carry out attacks in Afghanistan and India, defend the army’s entrenched economic interests, and keep the fires of anti-American sentiment burning.

None of this is good news for ordinary Pakistanis, or for the rest of the world. Khan’s anti-West speeches may have been strident, but reality will overtake his rhetoric. Pakistan’s economy is teetering on the brink of a balance-of-payments crisis; sooner or later, and probably sooner, the new government will have to turn to the International Monetary Fund for support. Sooner or later, but probably later, the new prime minister will also realize that the robust “new Pakistan” that he ha he has promised his voters will need him to complete the structural reforms that his predecessors have left unfinished.

After all, Nawaz Sharif himself was once a creature of the military: He rose to power as an acolyte of the military dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan in the 1980s. Sharif’s relationship with the Army, however, soured once he was in power and developed a small-business power base of his own that expected him to take on the entrenched interests that dominated Pakistan’s economy. It is not impossible that a similar dynamic will play out over the first years of Khan’s term.

India and the West, therefore, should be cautious. Embracing Khan too early would be a mistake, as it would signal support for the military’s management of the electoral process. But we should be awake to any sign that Khan — a man with enough ego for an entire cricket team — is breaking with his powerful backers. After all, how long will a man like Imran Khan be satisfied by not being the captain of his own team?

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