In an election marked by violence and the heavy-hand of the country’s armed forces, Pakistani voters went to the polls on Wednesday to choose their next government. The winner, according to preliminary, contested vote totals, was Imran Khan’s party, the PTI; Khan, in all likelihood, will be the next prime minister. There had been some uncertainty about the results, but not as much as one would have hoped: Pakistan’s military had been putting its foot on the scales for Khan during the entire campaign, cracking down on unfriendly press, and going after his chief rival—former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N—who was arrested on politically-motivated, albeit credible, corruption charges, along with his daughter, several weeks ago.
Khan, a former cricket star and current demagogue, will now face a variety of governing challenges, including what appears to be a looming IMF bailout, continuing unhealthy relationships with neighbors India and Afghanistan, a hostile U.S. president, and a country whose democratic space is once again shrinking. (Almost every other party has already claimed major irregularities with the vote, which is being reported at a slower rate than had been expected.)
To talk about what the results mean, I spoke by phone with Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Khan should be grouped with other right-wing populists rising around the world, what policies he is likely to produce in office, and if the crackdown on Pakistani civil society will continue.
Isaac Chotiner: Imran Khan ran and lost in 2013. Is there any evidence that he had substantially more popular support this time, or rather that he was just helped more by the military umpires, or whatever the cricket metaphor is?
Asad Hashim: It’s really hard to tell these things, because even back in 2013, there were a number of constituencies that the PML-N won in Punjab that were within a 10 percent vote margin. Those are pretty close victories. These were a large number of seats. What that indicates is that it doesn’t take that much to swing it back the other way. You don’t need to increase that many votes. Generally, from a macro point of view, Imran seems about as popular as he was in 2013. The key to this election was always going to be how many people that voted for the PML-N he was able to sway over. We saw a little bit of that across the board in public opinion polls and so on, but those kinds of things can also be misleading.
When you talk about the “umpires,” the PTI’s argument—across the board, every campaign I have covered throughout the season—has always been that we are going to make major gains because the army is going to ensure that there is a level playing field, and no rigging. And when we see the true numbers, you will see we are ahead, and we should have been ahead in all these polls in 2013.
Is there a smoking gun? Do we know for a fact that the military stuffed ballots? No, we do not. What we do know is that observers and rights groups in the lead-up to the polls all documented widespread allegations of coercion, of intimidation of opposition candidates, in favor of the PTI.
That is an atmosphere we cannot ignore when we look at the provisional results today.
Imran Khan has been written about and discussed as part of this global, “populist,” anti-establishment wave. He engages in demagoguery regarding minorities and foreign countries; he tweets weird conspiracy theories; etc. But how helpful is it to place him in this basket, especially considering that he is the favorite of Pakistan’s military “establishment”?
I think that’s a really good question because we look at the demagoguery and the Viktor Orbans of the world rising in their areas, and Trump and others rising elsewhere, it is important to always look at local dynamics and what leads to that rise. It is not a good enough argument to say, “Rightwing populism is rising across the world.” There are always a particular politics in which it rises. And In Pakistan, for example, the rise of Imran’s kind of politics comes from the fact that that atmosphere has also been created and inculcated by the military, which is a huge player in the way that politics is practiced in this country. The military’s argument has always been that the civilians are corrupt. Civilians don’t know how to manage things. The civilians aren’t merit-based. They are running on patronage. And so none of it is fair or just, and the military is the only institution that is actually just. In an environment where that kind of argument is created, Imran is almost a worthy successor to the [former military dictator Pervez] Musharraf crown. You see a lot of people who support Pervez Musharraf support Imran Khan for the same reasons. They feel like he is honest and not beholden to the same kind of power and privilege as the other politicians are.
Looking at that local context is important. Broadly speaking, when you look at the conspiracy theories, conducting politics through Twitter, being swayed very easily between policy positions by the last person who talked to you, it seems like Imran does definitely fall into those categories as well. Is that a coincidence or part of a broader wave of how human beings understand power and actually want power to be practiced by their representatives? That is a broader question that should be answered at some point.
What do you expect Khan to be like in power, as seems likely now? A number of Pakistani politicians have rode into office with high hopes, only to find their options limited and constricted by circumstances and the army, even if—like Imran—they have support from the army initially.
I think that is the key question as to what will define his tenure if he is indeed prime minister. Not the big picture questions of what he is trying to solve, like corruption etc., but to me the big question is how he will fare when he comes up the against the military on any matter of policy, whether it has to do with India, with Kashmir, with Afghanistan, relationships with the United States. What is going to happen when he is actually inside the machine and realizes there is a pushback that happens in a very real and very direct way when he is trying to make policies that he believes he should be allowed to make as an independent prime minister. That will define whether he is in fact a populist leader who believes civilians should have supremacy, or if he is someone who believes that the status quo in Pakistan, i.e. the military dominating certain aspects of politics, is okay, and can be managed and is an equation Pakistanis should live with.
Are you predicting any breaks from the status quo on foreign policy in terms of India, Afghanistan, or the United States?
None. I highly doubt it. I don’t see him taking a break from what has already been happening. A lot of that policymaking is not really in the hands of the civilian government anyway, or if it is it is in partnership with the military. I also don’t think that will change because a lot of his views on those issues are fairly in congruence with the military. He does differ from them somewhat in that he has always been quite aggressive on Pakistan’s relations with the United States saying we shouldn’t be a vassal state, whereas the military is now trying to mend those relations. We might see a little negotiation there. But I don’t see any big moves. There are no talks with India on the horizon, and I suspect that will continue to be the case.
And with regards to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) [Khan has made conciliatory statements about the group in the past, earning him the nickname “Taliban Khan” from his opponents.]?
I think now that the TTP are largely displaced from Pakistani soil his approach to them has changed slightly. TTP operatives obviously continue to operate in Pakistan, but their bases appear to be across the border [in Afghanistan]. I think, because his big concern was using the Pakistani military against Pakistani people on Pakistani soil, now that they are foreign-based, I am sure he will find a way to support action against them. And the operations are less active than they were before, which works in his favor, because he doesn’t have to push against the ideological position he once took.
What will happen to Pakistan’s media and civil society now that the election is over and the military got its man? Do you expect the crackdown to lessen, or is this a new permanent state?
Oh no, absolutely, this is the new normal it seems. I have no expectations it will let up, particularly as we see this government trying to cement its legitimacy, and any kind of challenge to said legitimacy by probing into or investigating these allegations of rigging or regularities, will be cracked down upon very heavily. What we have seen in the last few months as far as media censorship is concerned—well you can’t say unprecedented in Pakistan because obviously Zia [ul-Haq, military dictator from 1977-1988] happened–but we are in a new phase that we have not seen for many years, particularly not in the liberalized Pakistani news media. There are direct forms of press advice being issued, there is direct coercion in terms of distribution networks being disrupted if one violates the editorial agenda that has been set by the powers-that-be, and I expect that that will not change.