ISLAMABAD: Ex-cricketer Imran Khan was sworn in as the prime minister of Pakistan on Saturday morning, three weeks after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won a general election marred by allegations of military interference.
Khan’s rise to the top office underscores a remarkable journey for a man who launched his party in 1996 and for years tried but failed to take the reins of Pakistan.
“I did not climb on any dictator’s shoulders; I reached this place after struggling for 22 years,” Khan said in a fiery speech on Friday after being elected prime minister in a vote at the National Assembly.
Throughout his political career, Khan has branded himself as a populist alternative to Pakistan’s elite, saying dynastic, corrupt leaders have enriched themselves while Pakistanis have grown poorer.
Analysts say his win has sounded the death knell for old-style dynastic politics led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) of three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), founded and led by the House of Bhutto.
The historic event is also only the second time in Pakistan’s history that one elected government has transferred power to another.
“Here, Imran Khan has won a second world cup,” said political analyst Mazhar Abbas, referring to Pakistan’s victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup led by Captain Khan. “Imagine, in 2002 he had one seat in parliament, and today he is the prime minister of Pakistan. At the end of his biography he writes that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is an idea. Today, it has become a reality.”
Khan attended Saturday’s oath-taking ceremony dressed in a traditional black sherwani long coat and white pants. He appeared happy but his body language also revealed some nerves just moments before he took over what has been called one of the toughest jobs in the world.
The challenges ahead are indeed truly formidable.
Pakistan’s history is marked by military coups and boom-and-bust economic cycles. A decade-and-a-half-long war against militancy has cost the state around Rs300 billion and hundreds of thousands of lives.
For Khan, the first challenge will be addressing historic civil-military tensions that have resulted in an outsized role for the army in politics as well as foreign-policy decision making. No Pakistani premier has ever completed a five-year term in office, either ousted in military takeovers or by Supreme Court judgments.
Khan also comes to power at a time when relations with on-off ally the United States and neighbors India and Afghanistan are particularly tense.
But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is on the economic front.
Faced with dwindling foreign exchange reserves, Pakistan needs $10 billion to bail out its economy. The current account deficit widened to $18 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30 and foreign reserves plunged to just over $9 billion this July from $16.4 billion in May 2017.
The question facing Khan now is whether to request an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout or turn to longtime ally China for a rescue package.
Pakistan went to the IMF immediately after the 2008 and 2013 elections, but this time the request for financial assistance is expected to be the largest ever.
“The typical response of an incoming government has been to ‘plug the hole’ through IMF and kick the can down the road for another five years until the next near-death experience,” Atif Mian, a professor of economics at Princeton University, wrote in a recent column in Dawn newspaper. “However, for things to be different this time, the new government needs to respond differently.”
This includes strengthening Pakistan’s financial and regulatory authorities and making them independent, shifting growth policy from import-led strategies toward domestic productivity growth and exports, and modernizing the financial system to reduce tax evasion and money laundering.
Privatising loss-making state entities, reforming the energy sector and broadening the tax net are some of the other issues Khan will have to tackle.
His aides say he is ready to take on the overwhelming challenges, including uplifting Pakistanis from poverty.
“He is always most concerned about the weakest segments of society,” Asad Umar, widely tipped as new finance minister, said. “Whenever we talk about economic policies, he always says we have to take care of those who are the poorest and the weakest.”
There are also fears that Khan’s government will end up being weak and divided. He did not have enough seats for a simple majority and has to now cobble together a coalition that might become a hurdle in pushing through his ambitious reforms.
“But in the first hundred days, if Imran Khan just shows good intentions, then people will be satisfied,” said veteran journalist and long-time Khan observer Suhail Warriach. “He doesn’t have to overturn the tables immediately. If he can just display that he intends to fulfil all the big promises he has made, it will be a good beginning.”