The dust from Pakistan’s July 25 election has not yet fully settled. But notwithstanding the dispute created by the blatant election meddling of the country’s all-powerful military, it is clear that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan will be the nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country’s next Prime Minister.
Media reporting from Pakistan has already covered various aspects of Khan’s colorful personality and the young Pakistani voters’ disenchantment with traditional politics, which helped the maverick win. It is also important to explore why Pakistan, after four coups and several elections since its founding in 1947, is unable to shed its reputation as a state prone to crises.
Khan’s election and the surrounding controversy are emblematic of Pakistan’s deep-rooted structural problems. Most of his voters are young nationalists brought up on propaganda about how corrupt civilian politicians have deprived Pakistan of its rightful place under the sun. As a celebrity widely admired for building a cancer hospital in his mother’s memory after winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup, Khan was the perfect messenger for Pakistani hyper-nationalism.
After entering politics in 1997, he became all things to all men—democrat, supporter of authoritarianism, Islamist, liberal, anti-American, upholder of “true” Western values, anti-India demagogue, and the man who can make peace with India because of his relations with the country’s celebrities.
Khan, say his supporters, cares more about Pakistan than other politicians. Still, his plurality in the latest election was enabled by the military-led establishment, which has wanted to root out the two previously dominant political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), for many years.
The absence of a level playing field for political parties in the run-up to the election and the many irregularities in the voting have been noted by EU election observers as well as the U.S. State Department. Protests over the rigged vote, some targeting the Pakistan Army, have also broken out in several parts of the country.
Although the demonstrations are likely to subside once the new government is installed, the polarization within Pakistan will not easily end. Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) received 16.8 million votes while the older parties, the PML-N and PPP, got 19 million votes between them.
Islamist parties, with more than five million votes, got little representation in parliament. But the sheer number of their voters means they will continue to cast a shadow over Pakistani politics. Having no stake in parliamentary politics, their role from outside could be disruptive unless they are handled deftly.
More important is the civil-military divide, which is likely to widen within society even if, unlike other elected civilian leaders, Khan does nothing to rock the boat within government. Pakistan’s military dominates almost all aspects of life and its control of the national narrative is profound.
On election day, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa explained the reason why the army wanted so desperately to influence the outcome. “We are [the] target of inimical forces working against Pakistan,” he declared. The election was an opportunity to show the world that Pakistanis are “united and steadfast.”
From the army’s perspective, repeated regularly in Pakistan’s media and entrenched in school curricula, Pakistan is a nation under siege with many enemies and only one “all-weather friend”—China.
Pakistani politicians’ corruption not only hampers development, the army and its supporters believe, it also paves the way for Pakistan’s enemies (usually a reference to India but also at times applicable to the United States, Israel, or Afghanistan) to “buy” influence in the country.
The Pakistani military obviously wants a civilian façade in the form of an “elected” government that follows the military’s dictates on issues such as policy towards India, Afghanistan, jihadi terrorism, and relations with China and the United States. It does not want a genuinely popular civilian politician in power, backed by an electoral mandate, and certainly not one who might alter the country’s overall direction.
Pakistani politicians have often revealed their incompetence and corruption, and many Pakistanis share the simplistic view that bad politicians are the only thing that inhibits Pakistan’s greatness. But the country also needs a more realistic assessment of its size, its economic capacity, and its ambitions.
Pakistan is the sixth largest nation in the world by population and has the sixth largest army, but ranks at number 25 among the world’s countries by size of GDP on a purchasing power parity basis, and at number 42 in terms of nominal GDP. Although the country has an impressive nuclear arsenal, it has the smallest economy of any country that has tested nuclear weapons thus far (with the exception of North Korea).
Its literacy rates are abysmal. Forty percent of Pakistan’s population cannot read or write, including 57 percent of Pakistan’s adult population above the age of 15; 31 percent of all Pakistani men; and 45 percent of Pakistani women. Pakistan is home to the third largest illiterate population globally.
Furthermore, the country suffers from massive urban unemployment, rural underemployment, and low per capita income. Over 60 percent of Pakistan’s population lives on less than $2 per day.
None of this, of course, has stopped Pakistan’s leaders from recklessly pursuing military competition with India—a country six times larger in population and ten times larger in economic terms. Resolving the dispute over Kashmir is deemed more important than normalizing trade ties with India. Pakistan also supports the Taliban in Afghanistan, ostensibly to balance out India’s influence over secular Afghans. And none of this looks likely to change under Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan’s election campaign echoed several recurrent themes of Pakistan’s nationalist discourse. Khan linked corruption to treason and described ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif derisively as “Modi ka yaar” (friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi). He branded the center-left PPP and other liberal or secular politicians as American agents and Western implants. His lieutenants portrayed Khan as the only patriot among politicians, one who would stand up to conspiracies by India and the “international establishment.”
Soon after the election, Khan made conciliatory remarks about the United States and India, though his first post-election speech included seven references to China. Khan’s most likely nominee for the position of Finance Minister has gone from talking about the conspiratorial “international establishment” to openly seeking an economic bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
For all his talk about changing the status quo, Khan seems to have no intention, let alone plans, of altering the course of Pakistan’s external relations. The hyper-nationalist agenda espoused by the Pakistani military featured intact in Khan’s post-election list of priorities: India must talk to Pakistan to settle the unresolvable Kashmir dispute; the United States must change its tone, return to its position as Pakistan’s benefactor, and recognize Pakistan’s preeminence in South Asia; and Pakistanis will build a great future for themselves if the rest of the world assists them with resources.
Historically, Pakistan’s geostrategic location was deemed to be its ticket to success. Soon after the country’s creation in 1947, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared that “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America” as Pakistan sought arms and money from the United States. “Pakistan is the pivot of the world, as we are placed,” Jinnah had said, adding that it was “the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves” because “Russia is not so very far away.”
Pakistan leveraged its location well during the Cold War, and in the aftermath of 9/11, in the war against terrorism. U.S. economic and security assistance to Pakistan since 1954 stands at $43 billion, of which $33 billion have been given over the last 15 years. But being a rentier state, collecting rents for strategic location, is hardly a recipe for consistent progress.
The Cold War is long over, and the Trump Administration is in no mood to continue past policies of renting or buying influence in Pakistan. China remains Pakistan’s friend, but it is not clear that it will follow the U.S. pattern of plowing in money if Pakistan pursues policies contrary to its interest.
The timing of the change in the civilian façade of Pakistan coincides with a major balance of payments crisis. Pakistan’s hard currency reserves are at an all-time low just as several loan repayments are falling due. China has lent two billion dollars only recently to tide things over, but Pakistan might need as much as $12 billion from the IMF to avert default. Exports are stagnant at $22 billion.
Unlike in the past, this time the United States is unlikely to help Pakistan in dealing with recurrent financial crises. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it clear that the U.S. government would not support an IMF bailout for Pakistan if the money ends up being used to repay Chinese loans.
Pakistan’s track record with the IMF has not been good. On at least 11 previous occasions, Pakistan has promised economic reforms and failed to carry them to their conclusion. The United States has tended to quietly use its significant influence with the Fund to help Pakistan for political and strategic reasons.
It might make sense for Washington to let Pakistan’s negotiations with the IMF proceed on merit this time. Pakistan should get its bailout only if it commits itself to addressing its real problems. Meanwhile, as Pakistan increases its reliance on China, it will soon find out that all patrons have some expectations from their clients.
Having chosen a populist nationalist as Prime Minister, Pakistan’s establishment and young voters need to learn the hard way that low literacy, low exports, and high infant mortality are not the result of the actions of Pakistan’s enemies or even the consequence of politicians’ corruption. They are the product of the military’s national security policies and the desire to act as a great regional power on borrowed money. High defense spending limits the availability of funds for education; lower education levels reduce the human capital needed for economic productivity; terrorism and religious extremism discourage investment and attract sanctions.
Pakistan’s problems have deep roots and addressing them will require a fundamental shift away from the narrative that has brought the country to its current state. That process will take take more than one election cycle in any case—but as Pakistani elections go, this one has set the stage for an even more difficult road ahead.