Ex-cricket legend Imran Khan has been making a play for Pakistan’s premiership for years. As he finally comes into power, we gathered four experts on the nation and the region to discuss what his victory means for geopolitics, Pakistan’s anti-corruption fight, and other key issues.
Octavian Report: Who is Imran Khan as a politician, and what are the core tenets of his party?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Imran Khan is a very interesting character. He was very famous for being captain of the Pakistan cricket team. He's been a playboy both in the Western world and all over India and Pakistan. His brand of politics is, I would say, right of center and sometimes openly Islamist. So even though his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which means the Pakistan Justice Party, is treated like a mainstream party, it's actually very close to the religious Islamist parties that exists in Pakistan.
Aparna Pande: It's been his desire to actually be Prime Minister since the 1990’s. He is populist, but he doesn't really have any fixed views. He's gone back and forth on his views over the years. He is close to the Pakistani military as he believes that they’ll help him come to power, and actually it did help him come to power this time around.
C. Christine Fair: He could have been Prime Minister about 10 years ago. Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, was really active in trying to augment the ranks of his party by getting very senior members of one of the opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, to defect to his party. But he didn't want to come to power through a coalition. The Army certainly would have engineered a victory for him then as they have now, but he didn't want to do that. He realized that the only way he's going to be Prime Minister is by playing a game with the Army.
In fact, for many years, the Army would sometimes question the investments they were making because he would say very derogatory, caustic, and antagonistic things toward the Army. The Army is not going to have an easy time manipulating this guy. But for the first time in a really long time, maybe ever, he is the only option that the Pakistan Army has. I think the patience of both of them will be tested pretty strongly.
OR: Does he want power for its own sake or does he want power because he is, to some extent, committed to the cause of the PTI?
Farahnaz Ispahani: The PTI is meaningless. The PTI is Imran Khan. He is a symbol, as I said: cricket star, great philanthropist. But if there's one thing that identifies him, he's always spoken against corruption. That is what has attracted a lot of young, first-time voters to him and his party. The ideology is anti-corruption, whatever that means.
He's never been in power in his 22 years of politics directly, so once he sits in the seat of the Prime Minister and his party, let us see how he does with the job of politics. Pakistani politics is all about corruption, money, and horse-trading.
Alyssa Ayres: It is also the case that he has focused on issues with the other two major parties — how Pakistan’s elected leaders have come from only two families in the past couple of decades. He keeps talking about building a new Pakistan, and creating an Islamic welfare state and delivering prosperity to people. You could see how this would be appealing to people who would like to see their country succeed and who would like to be better off themselves. But the big problem here is that he is extremely limited. He continues to be a partner of the military and can only undertake things that the military approves of.
Fair: The reason why he can be so squeaky-clean on corruption is that he actually hasn't been in power. And now he's basically being co-opted by the Pakistani political machine. And he's got a lot of people in his party who are looking for patronage. I think what is going to happen very quickly is that he will be sullied in the same way that everyone else has been sullied.
And if he wants to create an Islamic welfare state, he has to do something about taxation. Pakistan has some of the world's worst compliance with taxation laws. I think Bangladesh fares better than Pakistan. It has no agricultural tax. It has no industrial tax. It relies upon a poorly complied-with income tax and regressive sales taxes. The very things that he would need to do to make this transition that he speaks about are actually impossible because the people in his party are going to oppose it just like every other party member has opposed the implementation of those taxes.
OR: How does this election change both Pakistan's internal politics and its local geopolitics?
Fair: What I found very disturbing in this campaign was his very close alignment not only with Islamist political actors, but actual individuals that are tied to terrorist organizations. There were something like 800 people who were more or less in support of him that were actual members of terrorist organizations. I think that's extraordinary given that Pakistan had just been given a gray rating by the Financial Action Task Force. That was a pretty big middle finger to the United States — because they certainly deserve a black rating.
And one of his comments was incredibly incendiary about the Ahmadiyya community. I think he's going to be really bad news for Pakistanis. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have been murdered by Pakistanis in the last decade and change. He is not going to do anything to bring peace to Pakistan domestically, that's for sure.
Ispahani: A major issue in Pakistan is also freedom of religion and belief. Pakistan has the harshest blasphemy laws in the world. Pakistan's religious minorities live in fear for their lives a lot of the time. Khan spoke about how if he came to power, he absolutely would not change these laws. And on the point about terrorists: Hafiz Saeed of the group LeT, Lashkar-e-Taiba — he ran for elected office. He is meant to be under house arrest at the very least. But he was campaigning openly. This is the man who is alleged to be the mastermind of the Mumbai massacre. The United States government has put a $10 million bounty on his head.