As Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaf (PTI) political party put their case to voters, the burning question on everyones mind is whether he and his party have what it takes to turn the countrys declining fortunes around.
Who is Khan? Apart from his cricketing exploits, his leadership resume is short; with no stain of incumbency and probably a few political skeletons lurking in the background. Despite his 20-year quest for national power, what Khan may have going for him is that he is a relative outsider within the corrupt political elite. Khans known positions on social, economic and security issues are mostly right of centre. He derives inspiration from the success of Mahathir Mohamad and Recep Erdogan. Khan possesses charisma like the late ZA Bhutto, but lacks Bhuttos intellectual acumen. His past pronouncements opposing Pakistans involvement in the War on Terror, supporting the Taliban and denigrating the status of women in society are controversial and concerning. Moreover, similar to leaders before him, Khan is not above playing the religion card to win votes.
Khans populist, conservative and nationalist worldview resonates in a deeply conservative society. He advocates building infrastructure, a more efficient economy, education reforms, better public health options, a non-aligned foreign policy and combining Islamic values with democracy. These laudable goals are hardly new but appeal to a populace starved of decisive leadership and tired of dynastic politics. Ironically, Khan the current establishment choice faces past establishment favourites, the embattled Sharif family. Voters may allow him a brief honeymoon to deliver on his promise of strengthening democracy, better governance, job creation and combating corruption.
The problem is that any new government faces multiple tests, including an exploding population, widespread illiteracy, high unemployment, water scarcity, economic meltdown, and religious terrorism. Pakistan has always prioritised guns over butter. National security has taken precedence over investment in human capital. As a result, the state has spent little on its people, giving rise to troubling social statistics, pointing to a bleak future.
Khans pandering to the religious right is almost certainly required to get elected. Hopefully, after the elections, he will adopt a more centrist position on the stifling role of religion in politics and society
The economic outlook is equally dismal. Moodys just downgraded Pakistans rating from stable to negative, citing external vulnerability risks. Successive governments have grappled with a narrow revenue base, limited fiscal flexibility, and high debt reliance. The economy heavily relies on periodic bailouts and support from the IMF, bilateral assistance mostly from Saudi Arabia, China, and the US, and remittances from Pakistanis working abroad. The country needs consistent economic policies, spurring high growth rates, to pull people out of poverty.
Pakistan has to face up to the test from reactionary Islam as well. Society has rapidly embraced dogmatism and exclusion at the expense of tolerance and pluralism. Hate mongering and sectarian politics have increased exponentially. The country has irreversibly strayed far from the liberal, progressive and secular future espoused by its founder, Mohamed Ali Jinnah. Sadly, Khans pandering to the religious right is almost certainly required to get elected. Hopefully, after the elections, he will adopt a more centrist position on the stifling role of religion in politics and society.
If elected, Khans must try to correct foreign and security policies that have pushed Pakistan to the verge of becoming a failed state. But, it wont be an easy task to stand up to the powerful military establishment that has ruled the country directly or indirectly since its creation. Khan must persuade the generals that containing the growing defence budget, resolving the long-standing Kashmir dispute, ending the futile arms race, and making peace with India is crucial to Pakistans future. Pakistan also has to overcome its trust deficit with the US and Afghanistan to help bring peace and stability to war-torn Afghanistan. The countrys reputation too has suffered from its alleged association with cross-border terrorism
Khans task is to reverse policies, intended to preserve the status-quo, which have led the country down a ruinous path. He will need to unite the people to rise above narrow self-interest and to work for the greater national interest. Khan may be the last democratically elected leader to put Pakistan back on the path of stability and progress, as other authoritarian options could prevail if the country continues to struggle. Like others, this writer, views Khans candidacy with some trepidation given his record of divisive political agitation and incivility towards his opponents. But the failure of other mainstream parties to deliver during their stints in power lends support to the desire for a change in leadership.
Khan must manage expectations, build consensus and make pragmatic decisions to redirect national priorities. Despite the challenges, he has to revive the idea of a moderate, modern and progressive Pakistan to pull the country out of its current international and regional isolation. A tall order indeed, but this is Khans opportunity to prove that his that his achievements
match his rhetoric.
The Article First Appeared In Daily Times
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