Why should Pakistan choose Imran Khan

The rocky road to the "new Pakistan" Imran Khan

Imran Khan achieved clear success with his party "Movement for Justice" (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI) in the parliamentary and provincial elections in Pakistan. The PTI was able to more than double its share of the vote nationwide and will presumably govern (co-) govern in three out of four provinces.

Its success is likely to be based primarily on Khan's promise of a "new Pakistan" (Naya Pakistan), which was directed against the corruption and nepotism of the previous governing parties. He has promised comprehensive reforms and wants, among other things, to build an Islamic welfare state, create more jobs, modernize the education and health sectors and step up the fight against terrorism.

Khan's “new Pakistan” is initially facing two challenges. First, he has to forge a viable government coalition. Second, the looming balance of payments crisis will require tough domestic reforms. In terms of foreign policy, the crisis is putting a strain on relations with the two most important international partners, the USA and China.

The struggle for the majority

Khan's PTI was only able to win 115 of the 272 direct mandates in the election on July 25th and thus does not yet have a majority in the new parliament. The future prime minister must therefore get many independent candidates as well as a number of small regional parties from the provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan on his side. Delays in the formation of a government also result from the massive criticism of the conduct of the elections. Many parties have criticized the security forces' influence over candidates and the media in favor of Khan and his PTI. The electoral commission therefore has the votes in 70 electoral districts and thus in a quarter of the electoral districts re-counted. In addition, top candidates like Imran Khan have often won multiple constituencies. Since they can only take one seat, they have to vote again in the other constituencies. There must also be re-election in two constituencies in which there was no election, as well as in two constituencies in which the results had to be annulled; there the required minimum quorum of ten percent female votes had not been achieved. Khan's government will presumably only be able to govern with a slim majority and also has no majority in the Senate.

The looming balance of payments crisis

The new government will probably first have to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) again to avert an impending balance of payments crisis. The increased oil prices have increased the import bill significantly in recent years. In contrast, exports did not grow to the same extent, so that foreign exchange reserves have shrunk significantly. Should the IMF step in, it would be the 13th and largest aid program for Pakistan so far, with an estimated volume of around 12 billion US dollars.

Limited room for maneuver in domestic politics

The extent of the balance of payments crisis makes a fundamental restructuring of public finances inevitable. Khan's government will have to expand the tax base and limit government spending and social programs. There are new ideas for a long-term solution to the balance of payments deficit, such as the creation of a sovereign wealth fund with which a number of loss-making state-owned companies are to be privatized in the medium term. Such measures are unlikely to correspond to his voters' ideas of a "new Pakistan".

Foreign policy challenges

Going to the monetary fund could become the first foreign policy stress test for the new government. The IMF will require Islamabad to disclose all financial commitments, including those related to Chinese investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The lack of transparency of Chinese investments, especially the associated long-term financial dependencies, was repeatedly criticized by the opposition in Pakistan. It is unclear how the Beijing government will react to this disclosure. The US government, in turn, has expressed concerns that a new IMF program could be used to repay Chinese loans. Should the US block the aid program as a result, the already strained bilateral relations would be further damaged.

Khan wants to improve relations with India and Afghanistan. With regard to India, the Kashmir issue will once again move to the center of bilateral relations. However, the Indian government of Prime Minister Modi is unlikely to have much interest in rapprochement with Pakistan in the run-up to the upcoming 2019 elections, as long as the Khan government is not clearly committed to the fight against militant groups in Pakistan. Given the proximity of Khan to the army, which has supported militant groups in the fight against the Indian state for many years, this is unlikely. In relation to Afghanistan, Khan's aim is to use his sympathy for the Taliban to persuade them to negotiate with the government in Kabul. Here, too, Khan is in line with the interests of the army, which hopes that the Taliban's participation in the Afghan government will limit India's influence in Afghanistan in favor of Pakistan.

The new old Pakistan

In view of the precarious financial situation and a presumably tight government majority, Khan will have little room for maneuver to implement his full-bodied, but often not very concrete election promises. His "new Pakistan" will therefore resemble the old Pakistan in many areas, for example in terms of the army's influence on foreign policy issues. His success will also be measured by whether he finds a compromise between the austerity requirements of international donors and the reform expectations of his voters. In this area of ​​tension, religious extremist parties such as the new Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) could play a more important role in the future. Although the TLP did not win a seat in parliament, it has become the fifth largest party in terms of votes. The party's potential for mobilization was also evident in its blockade of Islamabad in view of planned changes to the electoral law in autumn 2017. It could use similar actions to remind Khan of his promise to create an Islamic welfare state.


The author

Dr. habil. Christian Wagner conducts research on South Asia at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP). The foundation advises the Bundestag and the federal government on all questions of foreign and security policy.The article appears on the SWP homepage under the headingIn a nutshell.