24 July 2018

Prime Minister Imran Khan is the last thing Pakistan needs


Pity Pakistan. In recent weeks it has suffered one of its worst ever terrorist attacks, with 149 people blown to bits. The rupee is crashing as the economy teeters on the brink of a debt crisis. And the country has been put on an international financial watchlist because of its failure to take action against terrorists.

Worst of all, Imran Khan is about to become the country’s next prime minister.

For readers with only a passing interest in this turbulent country, Khan’s likely victory in Wednesday’s general elections may seem like no bad thing. In the UK he is presumed to be a good’un: a glamorous, anglophile cricket-star playboy who talks a good game about fighting corruption. His politics are presumed to be as liberal as his private life.

So, Prime Minister Imran could come as quite a shock for many people.

For one thing, he’s no liberal. In fact, he spits out the word “liberal” as an insult, often combining it with the word “fascist” to describe those Pakistanis who think there should be a zero-tolerance policy towards the Pakistani Taliban, one of the most indiscriminately lethal terrorist groups in the world. Khan is the group’s highest profile apologist. At the peak of the Taliban’s terror campaign in 2014 Khan was pleading for them, saying they were “confused”. He thought the Taliban should be given an office in Peshawar from where they could parlay with the government. He bitterly opposed a military confrontation with the group, saying it would only fuel more violence.

As things turned out, Khan was wrong and the liberal fascists were right. After much foot dragging, largely caused by Khan’s noisy opposition, the army finally assaulted North Waziristan. The rate of Taliban violence fell precipitously.

He is still sucking up to extremists. The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa controlled by his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has funnelled taxpayer cash to the madrassa run by Sami-ul-Huq, an infamous extremist cleric known as the “father of the Taliban” because he taught so many militant leaders. Khan describes the insurgency against the elected, internationally-recognised government in Kabul as a legitimate “resistance”.

More recently Khan has been pandering to the country’s Barelvis, the community once regarded as benign Sufis but which have become murderously radicalised in recent years over the subject of “blasphemy”. A particular Barelvi obsession is the Muslim Ahmadiyya Community, a tiny sect they regard as heretics. But anti-Ahmadi bigotry is popular. Khan has gone out of his way to emphasise his support for the laws that criminalise Ahmadis for following their religion as they wish.

If Khan’s thoughts on extremism and militancy are dangerous, his solutions for Pakistan’s economic problems are childish: elect better leaders (ie, Khan), put corrupt politicians in prison and recover their “looted” wealth.

It will not make much difference because Pakistan’s undoubted corruption problem is a symptom, not a cause, of its malaise. The real problems are systemic: a broken bureaucracy little changed from the colonial-era, a failing judiciary drowning in a backlog of cases and an economy captured by rent-seeking vested interests.

To pick one example, Khan has had nothing of substance to say about how to fix the country’s awful automobile sector. The entire market has been carved up by just three companies. No competition means terrible cars at high prices, low production, fewer jobs than there might be and big profits for the owners. The cheapest car in the country is something called a Suzuki Mehran, a dismal contraption that according to 2011 research was 32 per cent more expensive than the same model in India (where it has now been phased out).

The sugar business is also notorious for stiffing consumers for the benefit of the fabulously rich owners of sugar refineries, such as Jahangir Tareen, one of Khan’s biggest donors and closest allies. It is remarkable how willing this self-styled Mr Clean is to be seen around people who typify Pakistan’s crony-capitalism. That includes party-hopping “electables” with large vote banks who enter politics purely for its patronage opportunities. Khan used to denounce such people. This election he has wooed many of them to his banner.

Khan’s approach to economic matters is not much different from every other Pakistani politician. He suffers from the common affliction of liking big, showy “mega projects”. One of his efforts in Peshawar is a public bus system with dedicated flyovers that is massively over budget. There is also the more whimsical “billion tree Tsunami”, a greening project. Cutting ribbons on physical infrastructure is far preferable to the thankless grind of fixing a broken state.

Khan likes to promise quick results, famously saying he will “fix corruption in 90 days”.

But Pakistan has spent decades digging itself into a hole of cavernous proportions. It cannot escape in a single leap.

And nothing will change until it deals with its biggest single problem: an out-of-control army that thinks it has the right to rule. The military’s habit of periodically seizing power, or by so manipulating politics that it enjoys de facto power, is the main reason Pakistan’s institutions are so broken.

The only conceivable way the situation might be rectified involves the slow and steady entrenchment of democracy. Successive cycles of free and fair elections would allow politicians to gradually stop worrying about the next coup and instead concentrate on delivering for the people. Governance would improve. The enfeebled institutions of civilian rule would grow stronger.

At some point civilians would do what has long been unthinkable: grapple back control over foreign and defence policy, two areas the army think is its exclusive domain. That could lead to the end of the incredibly expensive and pointless 70-year conflict with India (and the army-backed Islamists used in that conflict). Cross border trade and human happiness in a region of 1.5bn people would boom.

For a time it seemed Pakistan was moving in that hopeful direction after the country’s last military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, was turfed from office in 2008. The two main parties – Sharif’s PML-N and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party – struck an agreement to jointly resist any efforts by the military to undermine civilian rule. Most importantly, they vowed never to conspire with the army to bring down a government, as Sharif had done in past. Then, in 2013, history was made when one elected government replaced another for the first time.

Alas, Khan has scuppered that positive trend.

He has treated parliament with contempt, despite an extraordinary 2013 breakthrough when he came within a squeak of being the second largest party. The result was not good enough for Khan. He refused to accept the result and peddled conspiracy theories that the election had been rigged, even though international observers declared the poll the cleanest in Pakistan’s history.

When the Election Commission duly investigated and found no evidence of systematic cheating Khan took to the streets. For four months in 2014 Khan held the capital, Islamabad, to ransom. He marched thousands of his supporters into the city and parked a re-purposed, air-conditioned sea-container outside the National Assembly. From there he harangued the “cursed” parliament. He said he would not leave unless Sharif resigned. He scarcely concealed his hope that the standoff would provoke a crisis that would force the army to intervene on his behalf – “the umpire will raise his finger” he promised the crowds.

On September 1 Khan unleashed his mobs onto key government buildings. Khan’s supporters invaded and briefly took over the state broadcaster PTV. They swarmed onto the grounds of parliament. It did not precipitate the crisis he hoped for. But it did help normalise the practice of mobs descending on Islamabad threatening violent confrontations.

Khan’s behaviour during the current election campaign has been even more disgraceful.

He has had nothing to say about an industrial-strength campaign of “pre-poll rigging” orchestrated on his behalf by the Pakistan Army. It is not that the army particularly love Khan. But they are desperate to knock out Sharif, a man who obstinately believes in civilian supremacy, peace with India and accountability for former army chiefs who instigate coups.

The army has gone to extraordinary lengths to neutralise Sharif, who was until recently the odds-on favourite to win. Media deemed favourable to Sharif have had their distribution choked. Non-compliant journalists and bloggers have been threatened and kidnapped. The media’s coverage of the election has been so one-sided that at times it has seemed as if only the PTI is running.

Army intelligence officers have compelled some PML-N candidates to jump ship to Khan. They have used crude threats and, astonishingly, the promise of positions in Khan’s government. Dozens have indeed defected. International election monitors have been prevented from entering the country in time to do their work properly. Sharif himself has been knocked out of running after Pakistan’s increasingly wild judiciary disqualified him from office for a minor breach of electoral law based on evidence provided by the army’s intelligence wing. Crucial indirect elections to the upper house of parliament were manipulated to prevent Sharif’s party from gaining a majority.

Imran Khan, the great hope for a “Naya (New) Pakistan”, has not called out any of this. Not the bashing of the media, not the kidnapping and torture of dissident bloggers, not the dodgy legal rulings, not the menacing of politicians by the deep state. He has stood by whilst the elections have become the “dirtiest, most micromanaged in the country’s history”, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

So, if Khan does win on Wednesday it will be a hollow victory. His power will be heavily constrained, both by the coalition partners he will likely need to govern, and by the deep state whose electoral engineering he has embraced.

His supporters will inevitably be disappointed when the change he has promised cannot be delivered in just a few months, or even years.

Worse, millions of Sharif’s supporters will not accept Khan as a legitimate prime minister. By failing to stand up to Pakistan’s deep state, Khan has been complicit in damaging the country’s most important institutions: the government, the judiciary, the media. Also, ironically, the army: recent days have seen unprecedented demonstrations outside the headquarters of the ISI in Islamabad and scattered anti-army protests in normally pro-military Punjab.

It all amounts to a remarkable deterioration in the fortunes of a country that is once again at risk of sliding into chaos.

Even before he has taken power, Imran Khan has set his country back decades.

Jon Boone is a freelance journalist who was, until recently, based in Pakistan.