Imran Khan speaking at a rally in Abbottabad, 2017. Photo: PKKH Imran Khan speaking at a rally in Abbottabad, 2017. Photo: PKKH

Imran Khan’s electoral victory offers Pakistan the potential for a break from neoliberalism and the War on Terror argues Sohaib Khan

In a low turnout of 50-55%, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Party (PTI) is set to form a coalition government after coming up with most seats in a controversial general election. With the former billionaire Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in jail for money laundering charges relating to the Panama Papers leaks, his party PML N was unable to get most seats in a two-way race with Khans’s party PTI. Though the legal ruling which ousted Sharif is seen as controversial, it is hard to imagine how a Prime Minister of any functioning democracy can hold on to office after revelations of involvement with offshore companies in tax havens and owning millions of pounds worth of property in London’s Park Lane through such companies. 

Opposition parties have alleged irregularities at some polling stations. There have been allegations of polling agents from other parties being kept from vote counting. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan - an independent body - has denied any widespread rigging. Allegations of vote manipulation is just one of the many challenges facing any new government in Pakistan – other challenges include massive power cuts, towering inequalities between a tiny, rich elite and millions of ordinary Pakistanis living well below the poverty line. 

Despite the accusations of vote manipulation, it is clear to see that his party had put forward a populist mix of messages which included: 10 million new jobs, welfare system payments for the unemployed and senior citizens and exiting the US War on Terror. Early projections show that his party was not only able to hold the northwestern province of KPK, but has made significant gains in urban centres of Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi as well as central Punjab. 

The most important challenge for Khan might yet prove to be on the Western border with Afghanistan. Today the war in Afghanistan is the bloodiest it has ever been, with Pakistan having its own share of suicide bombings - hundreds of people being butchered in deadly attacks every month. Security as well as the cultures of both of these countries are interlinked in ways which not a lot of us in the West appreciate. Outside of Kabul, the United States has all but lost the war. The Taliban wield influence over most of the countryside outside of the capital. But Afghan and Pakistani civilians pay the highest price for the war on terror. It is worth noting here that despite the current level of violence, the Taliban have for some time been ready to come to the negotiating table. With some imagination, it is not hard to think of a peace settlement which involves total exit of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and gives legal protections to Afghan women and minorities. All roads to peace in Afghanistan go through American exit from the country.

Pakistan’s newly elected leader has been a consistent and fierce critic of the US war in Afghanistan since 2001. He spoke out against the Iraq War at the February 15th 2003 protest in Hyde Park. Activists of his party PTI once successfully blocked Nato supplies going through Pakistan into Afghanistan. In his introductory speech to Pakistanis, he said:

There will be an open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan one day

Imran Khan can play a role in a peace plan to bring an end to the war on terror in Afghanistan. In this, he stands out from the rest of Pakistani politicians. In his rallies to thousands of supporters he has consistently criticised the military operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas (bordering Afghanistan) citing human rights violations and civilian casualties.

An immediate challenge for Imran Khan and Pakistan is that soon it will have to knock on the door of the IMF for a bailout. In exchange for which, the IMF will ask for big cuts in public spending and privatisation. It is hard to see how any radical homebuilding or job growth policies can be implemented in light of such pressure. Taking an IMF bailout will also seriously dampen any initiative to make a break from American policies in Afghanistan. In countries like Pakistan, the IMF serves little other purpose than as an extension of the State Department.

In his first speech to Pakistanis, Imran Khan said:

You cannot have a country where a tiny island of rich live in a vast sea of the poor

What is quite clear is that the rise of Imran Khan shows a desire for radical change amongst ordinary people. Whether it’s the spectacular rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Bernie Sanders in the US or Imran Khan in Pakistan, those left behind by neoliberal capitalism are making themselves heard once again.