Dr Kiran Hassan, associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, says it is still too early to assess whether Imran Khan, Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, is going to deliver on his promise to transform the country.
There are three indicators suggesting that Imran Khan’s government will pursue policy shifts which have not been observed by both civil and military governments in a long time. Keeping his pre–electoral pledge to the Pakistani people, his government has declared its intention to root out corruption, is observing austerity and not pandering to the US – all signalling towards a new Pakistan.
Khan’s crusade against corruption
Imran Khan’s career in politics boomed recently because he highlighted the corruption of Pakistan’s two leading political parties. The disqualification of the previous Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, from the 2018 election and his imprisonment on the basis of mega-corruption scandals in the aftermath of the ‘Panama Papers’, boosted Khan’s election campaign. Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif (the former chief minister of Punjab and the current leader of the opposition) is currently in jail for another corruption scandal, the Ashiana Housing scheme accused by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
A month after the newly elected government, Pakistan’s premier court formed a joint investigation team (JIT) to probe alleged laundering of billions of rupees through fake bank accounts, which were leading to the involvement of former president, Asif Zardari (leader of Pakistan People’s Party) and his sister, Faryal Talpur. According to Pakistani television channels, the fake bank accounts and mega money laundering case is likely to place Mr Zardari in jail in the coming weeks.
This is not the first time that corruption allegations have played havoc with Pakistani politics, especially involving Mr Nawaz Sharif and Mr Asif Zardari. During the latter’s marriage to the late Benazir Bhutto (twice prime minister in the 1990s), he was often referred to as ‘Mr ten per cent’ because of his money shady deals. On the other hand, the ruling Sharifs have been known to take advantage of their public office to advance their personal wealth. Both used the accountability finger for mega money laundering and gross misuse of public office to mainly discredit each other. This is one of the reasons these political parties could not finish their terms during the 1990s.
After almost three months in power, Imran Khan’s follow-up on corruption shows two trends. First, a legal commitment towards targeting corruption scams shows that his anti-corruption crusade is so far successful. Second, because he himself remains untarnished, his promise to tackle Pakistani corruption is welcomed domestically and internationally.
For instance, the UK has joined Pakistan in a new Justice and Accountability Partnership which will help Pakistan tackle the scourge of corruption. This partnership includes an initial £750,000 to pursue those involved in money laundering and the appointment of a new envoy on justice and accountability.
According to a leading economist, Dr Moonis Ahmer, Mr Khan’s measures against corruption and nepotism has already set a trend for a new Pakistan because. Tax evasion and kickbacks in various national projects costs the country around Rs 1 trillion annually. If Imran Khan can bring a cultural change in the embedded double standards, which have been predominantly feudal or ‘darbari’, he will leave a mark in the political history of Pakistan.
In Khan’s first speech as prime minister announced he would pursue an austerity policy to wean the country off its huge debts. It was a well-received breath of fresh breath of air as his predecessors were famous for using public money on extravagant indulgences. For example, according to the Pakistani press, Nawaz Sharif took 64 international tours during his third term spending more than Rs. 650 million, while his speaker spent some Rs. 80 million of the Rs. 180 million national assembly budget on foreign visits.
Keeping to his word, Khan’s government has auctioned his inherited fleet of 80 luxury vehicles, choosing instead to travel in two, and his personal staff has been greatly reduced. His simplicity has appealed to the Pakistani diaspora and is setting a great example of ‘Naya Pakistan’, and is prompting a cultural shift amongst Pakistan’s wealthy elite.
United States is not Khan’s foreign policy priority
Pakistan’s relationship with the US has always been alarmingly one sided. A critic of US foreign policy in south Asia, Mr Khan has been vehemently against its invasion of Afghanistan and American drone attacks on the Pakistani tribal regions. He differs hugely from his military and political predecessors who would bend backwards to accommodate the superpower, and is instead demanding reciprocity and balance.
`In a recent interview with Fox News, President Trump asserted that Pakistan doesn’t ‘do a damn thing’ for the US, and once again blamed Pakistan for allegedly sheltering bin Laden. Responding on Twitter, Khan listed the ways in which Pakistan assisted the US. He wrote, ‘Record needs to be put straight on Mr Trump’s tirade against Pakistan: 1. No Pakistani was involved in 9/11 but Pak decided to participate in US War on Terror. 2. Pakistan suffered 75,000 casualties in this war & over $123 bn was lost to economy. US “aid” was a miniscule $20 bn.’
Prime Minister Khan’s recent official visits to Saudi Arabia, China, UAE and Malaysia, show that he may focus more towards China and the Muslim world rather than relying on the west. Many argue that given the inheritance of an economy in crisis, Mr Khan is reaching out to these countries because there seemed to be no other option for him other than to approach old friends, Saudi Arabia and China, for financial help. Although his government is negotiating an IMF bailout package, his approach towards the US sets him apart from Pakistan’s other political and military leaders who have always rushed to Washington, especially during times of economic crises.
Most foreign governments welcome the Pakistani government’s anti-corruption crusade, and domestically, there are considerable hopes for a transformed Pakistan. Khan’s government freed, and vows to protect Aasia bibi, the Christian woman who was sentenced to hang for blasphemy in 2010. This is a refreshing change from the previous Pakistani governments whose decision to remain silent about her unjust punishment and imprisonment led to the horrific murders of governor, Salman Taseer and federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti.
Dr Kiran Hassan is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published and spoken about Pakistan’s political, foreign policy and media issues on various academic and policy platforms.