The dust is settling and the results are in: Imran Khan will take the oath as Pakistan's next prime minister on Aug. 18. About 55 million Pakistanis cast votes July 25 in national and provincial elections amid plummeting foreign exchange reserves and a challenging geopolitical landscape. Khan's centrist Pakistan Tahrik-e-Insaf party (PTI) won a plurality in the National Assembly with 116 seats, ahead of imprisoned former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) at 64 and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) at 43. The latter two have formed a parliamentary alliance amid allegations of vote-rigging.
As Khan settles into power, neighbors near and far will be closely following his moves to see whether he adjusts Islamabad's involvement in the war in Afghanistan, in the conflict in Kashmir and with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But the enduring prominence of Pakistan's army in drafting foreign policy, along with the country's need for external funding from Beijing, suggests that Islamabad won't embark on any strategic shifts in these domains — even if Khan's zeal for rooting out corruption suggests that citizens may witness a long-term improvement in the business environment.
The world's sixth-most populous nation, Pakistan is a nuclear power whose political history is defined by the tension between its military and civilian leadership. As Imran Khan takes power, his administration's longevity will depend on his relationship with the army, which seeks to continue shaping the country's foreign policy on Afghanistan and India.
From Cricketer to King
Khan's election caps a stunning 22-year journey from the margins of Pakistani politics to the apex of power. Khan, who was already a national celebrity after captaining the national cricket team to its only World Cup victory in 1992, rode a populist wave on the promise of creating a "new Pakistan." Four years later, he launched the PTI, but it toiled in relative obscurity for over a decade until the 2013 elections. That’s when its message of cleansing the country's politics of corruption began to resonate with an expanding and aspirational urban middle class seeking change. Khan was truculent as a member of the opposition against Sharif, leading a long march on Islamabad in 2014 to demand the dismissal of the PML-N government amid allegations that it had rigged the elections. But it was the revelation of the Panama Papers in April 2016 that provided Khan a golden opportunity to pounce. Khan lodged a case against Sharif in the Supreme Court in August 2016, triggering a chain of legal events that led to the latter's disqualification from the office of prime minister in July 2017, as well as a 10-year prison sentence on corruption charges last month.
A Chance to Break the Curse?
Sharif's dismissal marked the third time that he had failed to complete a term, while also reminding Khan about a curse that has afflicted all of Pakistan's prime ministers: No single premier has ever completed a full term in the country's 71-year history. The defining feature of Pakistan's politics is the tug of war between the military and the elected politicians for power. After the country's birth in the violent partition of the British Raj, the threat of Indian hegemony elevated the military to a position of political prominence. Power struggles ensued, resulting in multiple coups that culminated in 33 years of direct rule. Sharif is now one among many politicians insinuating that the army's intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), manipulated the election to the benefit of Khan by engineering defections and intimidating the press. Although the military denies the allegations, Sharif's charges point to a precedence: In 1990, the ISI funded a political alliance called the Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to temper the resurgence of the PPP at the polls. Among the leaders of the IJI was Sharif himself, whose political adolescence occurred under the wing of Gen. Zia ul-Haq's military regime in the 1980s.
Living in a Dangerous Neighborhood
Khan's next moves will draw considerable attention in four world capitals: Washington, Kabul, New Delhi and Beijing. In the United States, the administration of President Donald Trump will push Khan to follow through on recent overtures to establish better bilateral relations by halting Pakistan's support for militant proxies in Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The support is a key factor that has enabled the insurgency to survive over the past 17 years — while also making the war there the longest-running U.S. conflict. Like his predecessors, Khan has an interest in cutting back support for the war in Afghanistan, but he wishes to do so on terms beneficial to Pakistan by promoting a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul. That government would keep India at arm's length and secure Afghanistan's recognition of the Durand Line as the legitimate border between the two countries (Afghanistan officially contests the border with Pakistan). Both of these objectives stem from Pakistan's grand strategy to maintain internal unity by preventing outside actors from exploiting its internal fissures. Ultimately, the army fears that Indian intelligence units could establish outposts in Afghanistan along the frontier with Balochistan, a province the size of Germany that is home to a secessionist movement whose leaders have openly expressed their desire for Indian intervention.
The situation highlights why Kabul and New Delhi will be keeping close tabs on the new prime minister. After Khan's victory, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended a hand of friendship, both telephoning the PTI leader to congratulate him on his win. Khan also noted the importance of Afghanistan and India in his acceptance speech, saying, "If there is peace in Afghanistan, there will be peace in Pakistan." Adding that if India takes a step toward peace, "We will take two steps forward." Hard geopolitical reality, however, might hamper such desires for peace, especially with India. Unless the latter renounces its claims to Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir at the very least — a nearly impossible prospect given India's strategic imperatives — Pakistan's worldview dictates that it must continue pressuring the Indian military in its low-intensity conflict across the Line of Control, the de facto border of Kashmir.
And then there is Beijing, Pakistan's strongest ally. China is preoccupied with ensuring that the change in government doesn't disrupt the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which aims to give China another outlet to the Arabian Sea and bolster Beijing's diversification of trade routes away from the Strait of Malacca under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative spanning the Eurasian landmass. And although the hostility between Khan and Sharif is plain for all to see, the prime minister-elect's administration has announced that he will not touch any of his predecessor's contracts regarding the corridor due to the critical importance of Pakistan's relationship with China.
In addition, China has moved to ease Pakistan's balance of payments crisis with $5 billion in loans for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Khan's biggest challenge now will be to secure an additional $10 billion from either China or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to shore up Pakistan's diminishing foreign exchange reserves. Naturally, such a bailout will come with strings attached: If Khan accepts an IMF bailout, the austerity measures that would almost certainly accompany a deal would necessitate tax hikes or spending cuts, or both, thereby diverting funds from Khan's proposal to create a welfare state. And if the recent reports are true that China is willing to extend a loan to Pakistan, the country's profound debt to Beijing could grow.
From maintaining a good relationship with military chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the rest of the powerful military to negotiating a difficult foreign-policy environment, Pakistan's cricketer-turned-prime minister faces multiple challenges as he tries to steer his country toward a more prosperous future. But if Khan can strike the right balance, he may finally break the prime minister's curse that has sidelined so many predecessors and realize some of his dreams of creating a new Pakistan.