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Pakistan is an interesting country. It is also a very misunderstood country. But that isn’t surprising, given the multiple paradoxes, problems, and pickles it has found itself in. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that the Pakistani people secretly possess a magic pill of immortality.
Despite military coups, lost wars, shambolic elections, extensive corruption, its resilience is truly admirable and hard to believe given its harsh political climate. Understandably, Pakistan has been hungry for change, if not starving for change. This is, therefore, the best premise to determine why both the 2018 election and Imran Khan matter.
Looking at the ground realities, it was hard to believe that Imran Khan’s PTI party in Pakistan’s National Assembly elections of 2018 would bag 116 seats as a leading party of Pakistan with leading figures in Punjab and KPK provinces, and surprising results in urban Sindh. This is also the first non-dynastic party that now holds the reins of government. As for its ‘cricketer-turned-politician’ leader, now Prime Minister, where to begin?
But before we look at Imran Khan’s electoral triumph, let’s look at the story of the preceding years. The incumbent government was held by PML-N since 2013 but was another Sunday breakfast of corruption, embezzlement, and mismanagement. It’s no surprise that the Pakistani Rupee now finds itself in another crisis, looking directly at another, out of the many, bail-outs from the IMF. But the turning point of this government was when Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister, was thrown out of office (thank God) by the Supreme Court after the ‘Panama leaks’ revealed once again his appetite for corruption and theft of public funds.
Notably, the Supreme Court would have never taken this notice without Imran Khan’s tireless anti-corruption and money-laundering campaigns, including a 126-day sit-in and mass protest in Islamabad in 2014. But things didn’t stop there. Approaching election day, Nawaz Sharif was handed a ten-year prison sentence for, yes, corruption allegations once again. This time he failed to declare the property empire he held in London as part of an investigation into his holdings. Speaking of his holdings, this man is richer than 99% of the British population, possessing properties in London worth multiples of millions. This spelled the disrepute and eventual demise of PML-N.
Election day was somewhat chaotic and tense, but largely peaceful. Terrorist attacks killed 30 people on the way to the ballot box. Results were delayed, and before they were even released, defeated parties cried bluff and rejected them, most notably the PML-N. The narrative of a ‘soft coup’ and electoral manipulation by the military started to take shape. But beside this, was euphoria, a new spark of hope and optimism, and celebrations of victory on the streets by supporters of Imran Khan’s PTI (dominated mostly by young and middle-class voters). Before I explain why I am in the latter camp, it is also important to address these rumours, before they undermine his premiership.
Firstly, the military is the most disciplined and diverse ‘institution’ in Pakistan. It is even more of an institution than the government itself, hence why it is deeply respected by the people of Pakistan. What’s also important to note is that Pakistan is a ‘national security’ state. Due to multiple wars and threats by India, the war on terrorism that has claimed 50,000 lives, and the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been forced to mould itself into a militaristic state, with a military that intently plays a commanding role in foreign affairs purely in the interests of Pakistan’s survival. If the military is accused of low-key manipulation, albeit unproven, it is certainly better than past military coups, and undoubtedly much better than outright rigging by establishment parties (including PML-N), that have done nothing but deprive the country of development and progress.
#Pakistan has rendered countless sacrifices in War against Terrorism and has always taken indiscriminate action against any form of extremism.
Our commitment for lasting peace is unequivocal.
#PakistanFirst 🇵🇰 pic.twitter.com/kPBgAKpzdX
— Govt of Pakistan (@pid_gov) 2 January 2018
Finally, Pakistan is a very young democracy, still learning to walk on its own feet. It is therefore far-fetched to expect elections to be fully free and fair. After the report by Michael Gahler from EU observers on the ground, it can be concluded that there was ‘no rigging’ of votes. The environment did certainly turn against the ruling party, PML-N, with possible involvement by the military and intelligence agencies, but I see this as an expected blowback by the people and various institutions, after years of mismanagement and corruption. A change was due, if not overdue.
Others have called him ‘Taliban Khan’, simply because he wants to invoke dialogue as a means to peace, rather than military expeditions that cost many innocent lives. Imran Khan has valid criticisms of Western foreign policy too, but this only signals his independent approach to foreign policy.
Encouragingly, waves of change are alive. PM-elect (still to take the oath) Imran Khan has vowed to fight corruption, build institutions, fund mass education, public health care and housing to ultimately create a ‘welfare state’. Khan also seeks to demand more respect for Pakistan on the international stage and resolve conflicts through peaceful dialogue and negotiation. Furthermore, Imran Khan’s story is far-estranged from the typical politicians’ story where they inherit their political influence merely due to the family they are born in. His electoral victory is therefore unprecedented after decades of the dynastic stronghold of the political system. Having made the country proud in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, Imran Khan retired to devote his energies towards the failing political system of Pakistan.
After 22 years of ‘tenacity, belief, and refusal to accept defeat’ (words of his ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith), his success this year is very well-deserved. During those 22 years, he also built world-class cancer hospitals across the country treating thousands of cancer patients for ‘free’. This earned him a humanitarian and heroic identity. Being 67 years old but still maintaining his charisma and glamour, his struggle continues as he attempts to grapple an ailing political system and bring back much-needed progress and prosperity to the people of Pakistan.