In 2011 and 2012, when Imran Khan, the former international cricket star and London night-club Lothario, first emerged from Pakistan’s political wilderness, he rode an Arab Spring-inspired wave of urban middle-class hopes for cleaner politics and better government. If Khan, a celebrity with his own income, came to power, the thinking went, then he might sweep away the family-based nepotism and corruption that had so curtailed Pakistan’s progress since independence, in 1947, and perhaps also loosen the Army’s grip on the country. Hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic, educated young people attended his rallies in cities such as Lahore, the country’s cultural capital. Khan fired them up by talking about a coming revolution in Pakistani politics, one that would modernize governance, attack inequality, and level the economic playing field through the impartial rule of law.
Khan’s tiny political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., expanded rapidly, and it surged in national and provincial elections, ultimately leading a provincial government for a number of years, to mixed reviews. But Khan fell short of winning a high national office and, in recent years, he has largely played a role of opposition agitator and provocateur. Now he appears to be within close reach of his ambition to serve as the Prime Minister. According to results in Pakistan’s general election, held on Wednesday, the P.T.I. won the most seats, by far, in Parliament, although not an absolute majority. The expectation is that Khan will be able to negotiate a majority coalition by attracting support from smaller parties and independent members of parliament.
On Thursday night, Khan delivered a nationally televised address, and he reiterated his promises to fight corruption and lift up the country’s poor. Since he retired from cricket, in 1992, after leading Pakistan to a stunning World Cup victory in Australia, Khan, who is now sixty-five, has undergone a complicated reëngagement with religion. In his speech, he cited the Prophet Muhammad’s seventh-century founding of Medina, in modern Saudi Arabia, as a model for his vision of a new domestic welfare state, “where we take responsibility for our weaker classes,” as he put it. “Our state institutions will be so strong that they will stop corruption. Accountability will start with me, then my ministers, and then it will go from there,” he added. “We will set an example of how the law is the same for everyone. If the West is ahead of us today, it is because their laws are not discriminatory,” he said. “This will be our biggest guiding principle.”
A challenge facing Khan is that, for many Pakistanis, the optimism that accompanied his initial rise has yielded to wariness, if not outright cynicism. His critics see him as an opportunist who is poised for power now because he has accepted back-door support from the country’s powerful Army. During the past few years, the Army and its allies have used corruption charges to marginalize the Pakistan Muslim League party, led by the three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was recently jailed after returning from his latest exile. Khan denies collusion with the Army, and declares that he will be his own man, but there can be little doubt that the military, despite its denials, engineered the latest fall from power by Sharif, and that Khan benefitted from it. [Continue reading…]