For a second time in its over 70 years of history, Pakistan transitioned to a peaceful politically inspired democratic transition on Wednesday, July 22nd. Imran Khan, the cricket star and A-list celebrity whose political party won this past week’s elections, could use his fame and charisma to reset Pakistan’s troubled relations with the West.
The dust has hardly settled from the election, which was marred by allegations of rigging and copious evidence that Pakistan’s military interfered to help Khan win. Khan’s party trounced the others, but as of Sunday remained short of a majority in Parliament. To become prime minister, he needs to win over independent candidates and smaller parties to build a coalition. Most analysts believe he will succeed, although it is not a sure thing.
It is widely expected that if Khan, 65, becomes prime minister, there will be an initial fascination with him as he tours the world. Most likely, he’ll visit foreign capitals and business titans, seeking help to solve Pakistan’s dire debt crisis and bring in investors. He also seems to have China in mind.
Khan’s political rivals in the months before the election, helping him win. But the Establishment chiefs may now be kicking themselves for doing a job too well. They seem to like Khan, for the time being, partly because his forcefulness with the United States and tolerance of Islamist extremists reflect how many of Pakistan’s top officers feel.
Pakistan’s military has directly ruled for much of its history and meddled during the rest. What the military bosses really wanted this time, analysts say, was a weak civilian government, with the veneer of a democracy. They were so heavy-handed in their tactics they ended up getting neither.
In many ways, Pakistan is a pivotal nation. It is the world’s sixth-most populous country, with 200 million people. It is also nuclear-armed and strategically located next to India, China, Iran and Afghanistan. For decades it has been cast in turmoil by suicide bombers, extremist groups and a nefarious spy agency that helped create the Taliban and actively supported Al Qaeda while ostensibly serving as an ally to the United States.
For a nation often in the news for all the wrong reasons — suicide bombings, support for terrorism, horrific massacres — Pakistan has reached a turning point that could possibly alter its dysfunctional trajectory. Khan also may move Pakistan much closer to the expanding sphere of China, a neighbor he has praised conspicuously as a role model.
Or Khan could simply follow the same path as many Pakistani leaders before him, supporting harsh Islamic laws and showing sympathy for militant groups, policies that have kept Pakistan isolated for years.
Khan brings something new: more star power and mystique than any recent Pakistani leader and perhaps a better chance to change the country’s narrative, even though the election was widely considered tainted. “Relatively few Pakistani leaders have won over the West,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director for the South Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “But Khan is familiar with operating in the international world. He already has strong name recognition. He doesn’t need to be introduced.”
Former cricketer Khan was once known as a party-loving playboy who eventually married Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress with Jewish heritage. Now Khan was a pious Muslim and conservative politician who rejected Western values. Khan’s transformation was still never fully accepted as authentic by Pakistan’s political elite, who routinely indulged in gossip about his playboy ways and religious hypocrisy—for instance, the woman on the divan.
Oxford-educated and once married to a wealthy British woman, Khan is clearly comfortable in the highest circles of Western power brokers. He was close friends with Princess Diana. He now expresses sympathy for the Taliban and for Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which include the death penalty, positions that play well domestically.
“He’s dangerously accommodating of extremists, and anyone who knows him knows this,” said C. Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
“Khan might be more inclined to butt heads,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former State Department intelligence analyst. “The difference with Imran is going to be because he’s a populist, he feels he can go further than Nawaz.”
Khan’s erratic personality is a further complication. He is known for running a team of one, making impulsive decisions, contradicting himself and then using his enormous reserves of self-confidence and charisma to dig himself out.
Khan remains most focused on getting the numbers he needs in Pakistan’s Parliament to form a coalition government with him as prime minister. So far, some smaller parties have indicated they will join, but he still has a way to go. The third-place party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, has been coy about whether it will join Khan’s side or oppose him. If it did join, that would easily push Khan’s coalition into the majority.
Most Pakistanis, even those who did not vote for Khan, believe he will be the next prime minister. Expectations are soaring that he will be able to change his country’s image. “Everybody thinks of Pakistan as a terrorist world,” said a 16-year-old girl named Mahnoor, who was sitting in the food court of a fancy new mall this week, eating McDonald’s French fries. “It’s not.”
Naveed Majeed, a rice exporter, said foreigners would listen to Mr. Khan because he brings something of an aura. “And I want him to tell the world we’re not all terrorists,” Mr. Majeed said. It’s clearly a sensitive subject; many Pakistanis ache for a new story for their country.
A wealthy sports icon turned politician who constantly reminds the country’s elite they don’t know the real Pakistan, Imran Khan’s rise to power is a replay of America’s 2016 reckoning with Donald Trump and the anti-establishment wave he rode to the White House.