Imran Khan Breaks the Party Duopoly in Pakistan but Will he Differ in his Leadership?

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Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI) wins the most seats of any single party in parliament, says Junaid Ahmad, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Lahore

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Imran Khan has been declared the victor of the Pakistan general election held on Thursday.

IMRAN KHAN: God willing, I will prove that all my policies will be about elevating the poor. Corruption has destroyed the institutions of Pakistan, and corruption is a deterrent. Because of it, investment doesn’t flow into the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: It is a decisive victory for Imran Khan, the former cricketer, and the head of the PTI party. The final results of the number of seats he has in Parliament is yet to be determined, as the results are still not finalized, and those results will determine whether he has to form a coalition to govern by majority. Now, Shehbaz Sharif, the president of PMLN, the party of the former president, Nawaz Sharif, said that he rejects the results.

On to talk about Pakistan’s election with me is Junaid Ahmad. He is the director of the Center for Global Dialogue and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Lahore in Pakistan. He’s also the secretary general of the International Movement for a Just World, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Center for Islamophobia and Ethnic Studies. It’s a graduate center. Thank you so much for joining us today, Junaid.

JUNAID AHMAD: Great to be with you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Junaid, let me begin with you recapping the results, and what we know so far, since you’re on the ground there.

JUNAID AHMAD: Well, I think the last I checked, the number of parliamentary seats that Imran Khan’s party PTI, Tehreek e Insaf, which means Movement for Justice, last was 114. It may have gone up to 120 seats now, in Parliament. So clearly that’s the majority party. He will still have to form a coalition with about 20 more candidates in order to have the majority in parliament. But right now he has really swept the election. He is the principal opponent, particularly in the influential- politically influential province of Punjab. The PMLN, controlled by the Sharif brothers, Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif, for the past two to three decades, they’ve really been routed. And so Imran almost has double the number of seats that they do in the National Assembly now.

SHARMINI PERIES: That’s very significant, Junaid. Now, give us a sense of the history of Imran Khan. Everybody knows him as a cricketer, but does he have political experience to run a country?

JUNAID AHMAD: Right. I think this is the most important fact. Well, on the one hand Pakistan’s own political institutions and democratization has been hampered at various moments by military intervention and military rule. And so Imran Khan, at the end of the 1990s, really decided that to move from what he was involved in, a lot of social welfare activities, directly to politics. Because that’s where he saw, he thought that he can actually make a difference in the country.

The problem in Pakistan, I was going to say this earlier, why this is incredibly historic and important, is that it has effectively been a duopoly like in the United States with Democrats and the Republicans. There’s been the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto family, or the PMLN of the Sharif brothers and their family. And so they’ve had a stranglehold on the political life of Pakistan. And to make a dent in that, in the way that PTI, Imran Khan’s party did, is quite substantial, quite substantial. And I think that one of the principal explanations for that is that many youth became politically mobilized towards the end of the last military dictatorship under General Pervez Musharraf. Youth were involved with lawyers, and Imran Khan was very much a part of that, in restoring the chief justice who was a unlawfully removed by the military dictator.

And so from that time, this period, this political consciousness has only risen, I think, within the Pakistani people. And I think that they are no longer interested in trying the same old politicians they’ve had. Whether it’s Zardari, who was the president, again, very incredibly corrupt, five years; or Nawash Sharif, who likes- and Shehbaz Sharif, these guys who like to build big things, but to do little for the working class and the poor. So I think that Imran Khan is riding on this wave of youth and general political consciousness that hasn’t been in Pakistan for a long time.

SHARMINI PERIES: Junaid, although he has been the anti-corruption crusader, there are allegations of corruption against him as well. Here I’m meaning Imran Khan. Tell us what those allegations are about, and whether it has any water.

IMRAN KHAN: There are corruption allegations against individuals of either, some of the politicians who are running on his, as the PTI candidate, or some of [inaudible]. On him directly, yeah, they don’t hold much water at all. I think that is precisely why he has been given the mandate and the chance by the Pakistani population. Because on this, over the past two, three decades, the guy has been pretty clean and completely devoted himself to politics. And in terms of the social welfare activities.

SHARMINI PERIES: And what about the allegations against him from his former wife, who actually wrote a book about him? And in that she alleges that he is as corrupt. Is this dirty laundry being aired in public prior to election? Or is it having any credibility, and is it sticking in terms of Pakistani politics? Obviously not, to answer my own question, since he has been elected. But at the same time there must be some segments of the population who believe what she has said.

JUNAID AHMAD: Certainly. And I’m sure most, many of them are in the PMLN or the opposition political parties. But I think that there’s two things. One, it’s just speculation. We don’t know what she is saying is true or not, and what parts of it are true. And two, I mean, in it, she does- and I think many people within his own party acknowledge this as well- sometimes, you know, he does have a big ego. And I think that’s what she was hinting at, rather than other forms of corruption, when she implied that he thinks he’s God, or something. And third, we know that the book was, as you correctly point out, very provocative. It had little impact in terms of the election result.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, let’s talk about the people around him to govern Pakistan. It’s a complicated country, given its strategic value to various external forces, being Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States. And the United States funds so much of its military sector, and the military itself holds a great deal of power in Pakistan and wields a lot of power. How is Imran Khan going to maneuver through all of this, and who are his aides that will help him do that?

JUNAID AHMAD: Right. Well, it’s going to be very tough. I think that in some ways Imran Khan has been positioned in such a way that there are various internal and regional geopolitical issues that he is going to have to forcefully address as the new civilian prime minister, in concert with the all-powerful military establishment figure on the issues of foreign policy. Right after- right on the New Year’s Day, as your listeners and viewers may remember, Trump issued a tweet saying we’re going to cancel all of this aid, financial aid to Pakistan, military aid, because they treated us like fools, and so on.

So the relations have not been good with the U.S. for quite a while. On top of that, the United States has only deepened its relationship with India in many strategic and military and intelligence-sharing ways; and not to mention economically. In response, and simultaneously, the Pakistan-Chinese relationship is deepening. And that’s where we have the initiative known as CPEC, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. And so that is also becoming a powerful alliance.

So Imran is expected- the expectations are pretty big- to deal with the internal economic issue of massive inequality, gross corruption, holding the high and mighty accountable, implementing a fair judicial system where the rule of law and due process are respected. All these things domestically. But equally importantly at the regional level. You know, in Afghanistan. An issue where it seems front goes back and forth. You know, last year, they sent more troops to manage it. You know, how 50,000 troops are going to solve the problem when 150,000 didn’t do it over the past 16 years, we don’t know.

But now he’s saying that they [intend to] engage, and talk with the Taliban. So we really don’t know about that. But what we do know is that Imran Khan has been very clear from the beginning, and he’s been criticized by many liberals and progressives for this, that a military solution is not always the best solution to the so-called issue of militancy and the Taliban, the Northwest. There are a whole host of other social issues in these areas that need to be addressed. But the U.S. and often the Pakistani military have only for the military solution.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Junaid, so there is the very substantial relationship between U.S. and Pakistan. But Pakistan is also steering towards China now, especially with the CPEC you’re talking about. China is assisting with some of the ports in Pakistan, and strategic relations are being fostered between Pakistan and China. Give us a sense of how significant this relationship is, and what it is going to be doing, what the significance of it is for geopolitical status of Pakistan in the world.

JUNAID AHMAD: No, absolutely. I think that one of the mistakes we make is to see these individual events in isolation from broader trends that are emerging. I think one of the historic turning points in Pakistan’s history, and I think 50 years from now maybe we all recognize, is that in 2015 it refused to send its forces to help the Saudis in their war- criminal war- on Yemen. And if you know anything about the history of the Pakistani military, it’s been kind of like a mercenary army protecting the regime. So that was, that was big.

Imran Khan in his speech today spoke about improving relations with Iran. Again, very sensitive, because the Saudis have always felt that Pakistan is, they can tell Pakistan what to do. So there’s a geopolitical angle here in which these countries, Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkey, Russia, even. Russia has even, you know, now opened up to Pakistan under the umbrella of maybe the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which initially, of course, was just meant to deal with the issues of terrorism, and so on. But now it is almost being transformed into a strategic alliance between these countries of the region.

And specifically I was saying about Pakistan and China that China, the Chinese-Pakistani relationship, I think it’s often equally misunderstood. You will often hear many people say that this just represents a new form of colonialism in Pakistan, and so on. In fact, it’s a very mutually dependent relationship the two have. As I was saying earlier, that the Chinese trade is dependent on access to the Strait of Malacca, and the South China Sea. Now, we also know that there are numerous U.S. naval ships there, always on high alert, or in the case of war preparation. So building this port in Gwadar, in the Arabian Sea, is absolutely pivotal for Chinese trade and access to gas, and so on.

So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The idea is that it will bring development. With costs. But right now, the idea is that CPEC and the relationship, the general Chinese thrust of Eurasian integration, of which Pakistan is a huge one, of Eurasian integration, interconnectivity, more trade, is a good one.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Junaid. I Look forward to ongoing conversations with you about the region. I thank you so much for joining us today.

JUNAID AHMAD: Thanks so much, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.