Event ReportsPublished on Feb 20, 2019
Old issues will hold back Imran Khan’s ‘new Pakistan’: Expert

“There are certain old issues that would constrain a ‘new Pakistan’ from emerging,” observed Dr Suba Chandran from the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru, while initiating a discussion on ‘Imran Khan  and Naya Pakistan’ at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, on 2 February 2019.

Imran Khan had campaigned hard on his vision for a ‘Naya (new) Pakistan,’ one that is free from corruption, poverty and crippling debt, Dr Chandran recalled. He explained it was important to analyse the situation in Pakistan by asking three critical questions: How ‘new’ is the new Parliament led by Imran Khan’s PTI? What are the obstacles that will constrain a ‘new’ Pakistan from emerging? Looking ahead, what are the prospects for India-Pakistan relations?

Non PPP-PML rule

While Dr Chandran was sceptical about the emergence of a truly ‘new’ Pakistan, he felt there were certain aspects of the new government that were indeed different from the past. “For the first time in the recent democratic history, a non-PPP-PML party has been elected,” pointed out Dr Chandran. “This should be seen as a considerable achievement for the PTI and Imran Khan,” he said. It is widely believed in Pakistan that the road to power is through Sind or Peshawar. However, in this respect again, for the first time in the recent decades, a non-Punjabi/non-Sindhi Prime Minister has been elected by the people.

Minor parties decimated

The fact that the regional parties such as the MQM, ANP, PkMAP did not win adequate seats was also a new development. The MQM had 24 and 25 seats in the 2013 and 2008 elections respectively, in 2018 it only had seven. ANP had 3 and 13 seats in the last two Parliaments while in 2018 it only had one. The PkMAP from Balochistandid not win a single seat in 2018, while it had four seats in 2013 elections. “The MQM, ANP and PkMAP bring a compelling regional voice from Sindh, KP and Balochistan” said Dr Chandran. It appears Imran Khan has mobilised these votes and also won significantly from Karachi. The move away from regional parties, which was a characteristic of Pakistani Politics is definitely a new phenomenon, observed Dr. Chandran.

A decimation of religious parties has been seen in the New Parliament, he noted. “Never before has religious parties had such a limited presence.” The electoral performance of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) areligious party of Pakistan with a strong political and electoral history was significant, he said.

While these were all new developments, Dr Chandran argued there were certain elements of Pakistan politics as well as larger international politics that would make it difficult and challenging for an entirely ‘new Pakistan’ to emerge. Although it was clear that people voted for change in Pakistan, Bilawal Bhutto was going to remain at the forefront of the Pakistani politics for some time, as the third-generation leader for the PPP. PPP is the only party other than the PTI to have secured more seats than previous elections. It has secured 54 seats in 2018 when compared to 42 in 2013.

TLP  ‘problematic’

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a debutant far right Islamist party, did not win a single seat. However, the TLP movement was on the rise, with its ability to paralyse cities with its presence, Dr Chandran explained. The TLP polled more votes in Lahore and Karachi and has emerged as the third largest party in these two cities. The reduced number of religious parties within Parliament may be a blessing for Imran Khan, but the TLP gathering moment could create problems for him on the streets, and pose a real challenge to Khan’s ‘new’ Pakistan, according to him.

There was an unmistaken support for Imran Khan amongst the youth who came out and voted against corruption remarked, Dr Chandran. The pulse of the people was against Nawaz Shariff and alternatively Imran khan was seen as the clean candidate, he assessed. However, while Khan may be riding a popular wave, it would be incorrect to dismiss the opposition. For the first time in the last two decades, the Pakistan Parliament has a strong opposition from within, he added. This means that the PTI would need the support of the MQM and the PML-Q who are likely to make substantial demands for their support.

CPEC: An Eldorado?

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), when announced, was seen as the panacea to all of Pakistan’s economic and energy problems. However, Dr Chandran said, today there was much divided opinion on the motivations and conditions attached to the projects. Questions were also being raised about its impact on local industry. The CPEC has consequently strained China-Pakistan relations to some degree, which until now was always described in rhapsodic terms, with the often-quoted lines: “our friendship is higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey.”

However, it is impossible to deny the influence of China in Pakistan, merely going by the number of Chinese in Pakistan who now make up one of the country’s significant expatriate communities. Though questions might be raised about transparency and corruption in the CPEC projects, it remains to be seen to what extent the proposed dream of ‘Naya Pakistan’ will change the China-Pakistan equation and thereby alter the projects in any significant way.

Looking to the future of India-Pakistan relations, it is unlikely that much will change, particularly as 2019 is an election year in India. Unfortunately, there is no ‘big ticket item’ that will bring the two countries together, he said.

At the same time, given the history of Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ and Prime Minister Imran Khan seen as acquiescing to its ‘silent dominance’, unlike Nawaz Shariff, whose career faced problems, Islamabad is not unlikely to come up with proposals and propositions that India could not accept but the international community might look sympathetically at. Given that the US has begun leaning on Pakistan all over again on the Afghanistan front after President Donald Trump had criticised Islamabad on its ‘terrorism record’ from the past, it remains to be seen how Washington and the rest would react to any emerging situation of the kind, Dr Chandran argued.

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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