Pakistan’s Populist Triumph

Imran Khan addresses supporters at a rallyATHIT PERAWONGMETHA / REUTERS

As Pakistan’s new prime minister, the former cricket star Imran Khan must deliver to his diverse coalition

As Pakistan’s new prime minister, the former cricket star Imran Khan must deliver to his diverse coalition while avoiding the temptation to indulge in demagoguery.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—At long last, Imran Khan is the prime minister of Pakistan. After winning the highest number of seats in parliament in this week’s election, the former cricket legend and philanthropist is now set to form a national government and possibly rule two of Pakistan’s four provinces, making him the country’s most powerful civilian leader in decades. It’s a remarkable reversal of fortunes for Khan, who for decades was mocked by his opponents as a naïve, inexperienced celebrity keen to perpetuate his own fame. Khan, however, remained determined. “I always fight till the last ball,” he told me a few years ago.

Khan won a special place in Pakistani hearts in 1992, when he led the national cricket team to victory at the World Cup. In a country where passions for cricket can reach near-religious fervor, the cricket team is seen as a metaphor for the government: full of rarely realized potential, but thwarted by poor leadership and appalling greed. After the World Cup, and Khan’s retirement, there were lurid allegations of ball-tampering and match-fixing. The sporting heroes were reduced to the status of grasping politicians. Khan’s fans wistfully recalled the glory days of his captaincy; now they hope he can do the same for the country.

Leading a nation, of course, is nothing like captaining a cricket team. Pakistan is a very difficult country to run, beset by numerous internal divisions—some of which could deepen after this election. During the campaign season, the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified from office last year and is now behind bars on corruption charges, said that it had been denied a “level playing field.” Reports proliferated that the country’s powerful military—in its zeal to punish Sharif for defying its authority—had intimidated, harassed, and coerced candidates from his party into switching sides, stopped them from campaigning freely, and denied them media coverage. “This was not an election, it was a selection,” Mushahid Hussain, a senator from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), said at a press conference. “It was the dirtiest election in Pakistan’s history.” Similar claims of rigged elections have been made by other political parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and observers like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The corruption conundrum in Pakistan’s democracy

Khan views himself as a classic populist, a politician who opposes a corrupt, morally inferior class of elites. His rhetoric is studded with broad appeals to religious and nationalist sentiment. Like other populists, Khan has offered implausible promises to sweep away entrenched problems: “I will end big corruption in 90 days,” he once vowed at a political rally. He cast himself as the only plausible alternative to an inept, venal, distant political elite. His party’s message: You’ve tried the others—why not give him a try this time? This pitch, whose appeal was once limited to the urban middle classes and elites, has now drawn support from a remarkably diverse array of people, from film and pop stars to religious hard-liners, wealthy businessmen to struggling workers, and large landowners to beleaguered farmers. But many doubt whether he can unite such an unwieldy coalition of supporters while delivering on his ambitious political agenda, and avoid veering into the outright demagoguery he occasionally indulged in on the campaign trail.

Khan, unsurprisingly, bristles at claims that he is the military’s preferred choice. His party, however, has done little to discourage the impression. Ahead of the elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (or “Movement for Justice”) welcomed prominent alums from military governments past—people like Omar Ayub Khan, the grandson of the former military ruler General Ayub Khan, and Khusro Bakhtiar, a former minister under Pervez Musharraf—who had suddenly discovered Khan’s political virtues. These so-called electables carry clout in their own constituencies but they needed a strong party to transport their parliamentary ambitions. One former member of Khan’s party, Javed Hashmi, has claimed that the military had been engineering defections from other parties for years.

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