Lessons for Imran Khan from the Recent Pakistani By-Elections
Photo Credit: AFP
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

Lessons for Imran Khan from the Recent Pakistani By-Elections

Oct. 24, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The recent by-election results in Pakistan on October 14, 2018 should serve as a wake-up call for the PTI government led by Imran Khan. Out of the 11 by-elections held for the Lower House of the national assembly, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won four a piece, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) also referred to as the King’s party, won 2 seats, and MMA (Muttahida Majlis-E-Amal) triumphed in one.

If one were to examine some of the important results, two of the seats (NA 131, Lahore, Punjab Province and NA 35, Bannu in KPK) were vacated by the incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan himself. Khawaja Saad Rafique of the PML-N won NA 131, while Zahid Akram Durrani of MMA won the Bannu seat. Another important seat won by the PML-N was the Lahore seat-NA 124, vacated by Hamza Shehbaz Sharif , the son of PML-N President and the former CM of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, and nephew of former PM, Nawaz Sharif. While PML-N did not gain this seat but retained it, this was important given that Hamza Shehbaz gave up this seat, and it was won by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who had served as PM in the previous government, after Nawaz Sharif was removed from Prime Ministership in July 2017. In the by-elections to the Punjab Assembly, the PML-N did reasonably well. Out of the 11 seats which went to the polls, PML-N won 6, the PTI 3, and independents 2.

There are some important takeaways for Imran Khan’s government and all political parties. First, Imran Khan’s honeymoon period seems to have been rather short. While some of his moves such as the renegotiation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with China have helped in the long run, the economy is in the doldrums (Pakistan’s debts were estimated at well over USD 91 billion in March 2018) and patience is clearly wearing thin within large sections of the population. It is unfair to expect Khan to have come up with a magic solution, but the PTI had promised the moon. There is a growing belief that Khan needs to be less populist. Khan’s austerity drive (auctioning a fleet of cars used by the former PM Nawaz Sharif as well as buffaloes kept at the Prime Minister’s residence) along with his idea of crowd funding for multi-million-dollar projects, have been lambasted and dubbed as mere gimmickry.

Khan is also a victim of his own rhetoric. When he was in the opposition, Khan criticized the previous government for going with a begging bowl to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance. As a result, the PTI government has had to face stinging criticism from both the opposition PML-N and PPP for its decision to go to the IMF to seek assistance of USD 12 billion. Finance Minister Asad Umar, while outlining measures being taken by the current government to deal with the country’s economic challenges, did say that this is the last time that Pakistan was going to the IMF for help.

Third, while the PPP and PML-N are family driven, the PTI is clearly personality driven. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry stated that not much should be read into the by election results since Khan did not campaign and the party’s main vote catcher is Khan. Beyond Khan’s appeal, the PTI seems to lack any clear ideology. If it is to emerge as an important third force which seeks to challenge the status quo, it needs to have a cohesive agenda.

Fourth, the PML-N seems to have made some important gains in its citadel of Punjab, in spite of the top leadership being unable to campaign. While former PM Nawaz Sharif was released from jail a few weeks ago, Shehbaz was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on October 5 for his alleged involvement in a housing scam. Former PM Nawaz Sharif, while commenting on the election results was quick to allude to the fact that PML-N’s performance is laudable given the fact that the senior leadership has been in trouble. While Nawaz Sharif’s stature may be high, the party has not been able to shed its image of being a family-run party, with its support base being largely in Punjab. The results of the July election, where Nawaz Sharif was not active in the campaign (first he was in London with his ailing wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, who passed away in September 2018, and then he was arrested upon his arrival in Lahore in July 2018), clearly reiterate that the party is excessively dependent upon Nawaz Sharif, and it needs to cultivate a leadership outside the family. The PML-N needs to be in sync with the changes taking place.

While Khan may have romped home in the general elections with the support of the all-powerful Pakistani army, he will need to shed the perception of him being a proxy of the establishment.

While Imran Khan did receive the backing of the establishment, perhaps a weakened Khan suits the Pakistan army better than anyone else. This gives them even more room to dictate Islamabad’s foreign policy in the neighborhood, especially ties with Afghanistan. It also remains to be seen how the Pakistan military responds to Khan’s approach towards CPEC. Khan has taken some important decisions to address the grievances of the non-Punjabi provinces, especially Balochistan. While chairing a cabinet meeting in Balochistan, Khan stated that not only were CPEC projects being renegotiated so as to benefit Balochistan, but he also assured Balochistan of a greater share in CPEC. Days after a senior minister in Khan’s cabinet spoke about how the current CPEC agreement is unfair to Pakistan, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, during a meeting with a senior Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, immediately clarified that CPEC remains crucial for Pakistan’s future, and that its security is of paramount importance. Bajwa also visited China in September, and apart from greater defense cooperation between both countries, the importance of CPEC was also discussed.

Imran Khan has been in the saddle for less than three months, and it is still the early days, but the results of the by-elections should provide some lessons. First, one week is truly a long time in politics, and with people’s expectations being high, Khan clearly has his tasks cut out for him, and a few cosmetic gestures will not do the trick. If Khan truly wants to challenge the status quo, he needs to not only be more democratic, he also needs to slowly but surely keep the Pakistan army in its place on key issues. This does not mean taking an aggressive stance in public (as Nawaz Sharif did) but to very deftly send a message that on key issues the civilian writ runs. This may seem a bit of a pipe-dream but it is not impossible.

On economic ties with China, Khan has been bold, especially compared to the previous PML-N government. There is no reason why he cannot do the same on other important issues, especially with regard to ties with neighbors like India and Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has made some welcome gestures vis-à-vis New Delhi (Khan has repeatedly spoken in favor of strengthening trade ties between both countries). While New Delhi did try to reach out to Imran Khan initially, it has also made some mistakes. First, a statement by MOS External Affairs, General VK Singh, calling Imran Khan a stooge of the army was uncalled for, and undiplomatic. After the decision to cancel talks between the Foreign Ministers of both sides on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, there was no need for India’s Ministry of External Affairs to attack Imran Khan personally: “the true face of new Prime Minister of Pakistan has been revealed to the world and that too in the first few months itself.” The statement should have confined itself to attacking Islamabad on terrorism, but a personal reference to Khan did not help in any way, and in fact Khan has retaliated and tensions have only risen.

It is equally true however, that the Pakistani deep state too will resist Khan’s efforts to reach out to India. In September, it seemed as though Khan’s conciliatory statements may pave the way for a thaw. Jammu and Kashmir were witnesses to violence, including the killing of three Indian policemen, and the slitting of an Indian Border Security Constable’s throat. This was seen as a message from the Pakistan army to Khan to go slow with India, and also as a way of clipping his wings. Apart from this, intemperate statements made by Pakistani military officials have not contributed to reduction of tensions.

While Khan may have romped home in the general elections with the support of the all-powerful Pakistani army, he will need to shed the perception of him being a proxy of the establishment. Khan needs to realize, that populism and symbolism have their limits.

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