• Alice Robson

The Future of Pakistan: Promising or Perilous?

Imran Khan in 2009 at the conference "Rule of Law: The Case of Pakistan"

Home to Qawwali music and a nationwide passion for cricket, Pakistan has grown to be a formidable force in international relations. A nuclear-armed country, it is often referenced in direct opposition to India, its closest nuclear neighbour. Furthermore, the country has been ruled by the military on multiple occasions throughout its history which has led to the perception of Pakistan as a politically unstable nation, with a tendency to fall into dictatorial politics.

Doubtless a difficult task to lead the sixth-largest population in the world, the most recent successor to take on this task is Imran Khan from the Pakistan Justice movement (PTI) party. (US Census Bureau) A former champion cricketer who led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, Khan’s journey to politics has been viewed as the transition of “playboy cricketer to politician” with American and wider Western media outlets understanding Khan to be an unpredictable and inconsistent liberal, attributing Khan’s success to his cricketing fame.

However, Khan should not be underestimated as simply a sportsman seeking to try something new. Khan founded the centre-right PTI party in 1996, and its rise to power has doubtlessly been a tool to showcase his knack for politics. His domestic politics primarily focus on anti-corruption, promising a stronger justice system and improved education and healthcare systems. This anti-corruption stance may have become further embellished with the downfall of former Prime Minister, Naz Sharif, who was declared unfit for office in 2017 due to corruption and graft charges.

There are many contradictory elements to Khan’s politics. Khan attended Oxford University to read philosophy, politics and economics, and was infamously a party prince until he transitioned into the political world. This, he claims, provided him with an outline for his anti-corruption stance, determining the strength of Western justice systems to be the deterrent for corrupt acts that have tainted Pakistani politics since its independence. (CNN) Khan’s anti-corruption position has led him to advocate for the destruction of dynastic politics. This would involve removing his chief rivals from positions of power – a smart move that is entirely justified by his publicly backed social reform schemes.

Soldiers of the army of Pakistan during the 2006 IDEAS Defence Exhibition

Yet there are many elements of Khan’s leadership that have forced many in the international community to question the internal new Prime Minister’s internal intentions. Khan’s zero-tolerance policy for corruption, if executed across all sectors, would include the removal of some of his military supporters. The new Prime Minister has made his opinion on the role of the military clear – he would rather appease them in order to facilitate his social betterment programmes. (BBC) By appeasing the military, Khan will be forced to take on a more authoritarian role, and whilst possibly stamping out some of the decades-old corruption that has polluted Pakistani politics, a closer relationship with the military will allow further corruption to grow, unnoticed and without restrictions. Internationally, this raises a multitude of questions and concerns.

On a global scale, Khan posits his role in the Middle East as a mediator, claiming he wants to connect and foster ties to India, Iran, and Afghanistan in order to bring further stability to Pakistan economically and socially. Yet, these suggestions come with a condition: only if the other nations approach Pakistan with similar intentions. This is an incredibly uncertain stance, and one that can be used in the future to justify a plethora of actions. Additionally, Khan aims to boost Pakistan’s economy by developing trade networks and investing in China. The anti-American stance that Pakistan holds was echoed by Khan in his election-bid. A future of an isolated Pakistan with economic independence from the West appears to be his goal. This has been followed up by Trump’s statement claiming that any nation seen to be trading with Iran will be isolated from future business with the US has set a precedent that may endanger Pakistan’s economic prospects in the future.

Furthermore, Khan’s hard-line religious viewpoint has led to his condoning of misogynistic views. In many areas of Pakistan women were turned away from polling stations, and Khan previously criticised the women who participated in a 2006 marathon. He has publicly denounced feminism as degrading to motherhood and stay-at-home wives, all of which threatens to send the slowly growing feminist movement in Pakistan into steep recession. This may indicate further human rights issues that could be heightened with the decision to demean women into roles purely as daughters, wives and mothers. Additionally, at least one thousand women per year are murdered in “honour killings”, as reported by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), and there is yet to be sufficient legislation to combat this issue. The HRW also reported 21% of girls married before the age of eighteen in Pakistan, again proving that Pakistani culture devalues the plethora of roles women are capable of fulfilling, instead shoehorning them into futures of domestic familial service. Khan’s term as prime minister is a signal of foreboding for all Pakistani women; it would be a surprise if he made any positive changes to lessen gender discrimination in Pakistan.

Religious inclusivity was a key component of Khan’s campaign and victory speech. This is a concept with which Pakistan has struggled from its birth. The persecution of minority religions is prevalent across the nation, but particularly in small rural areas where Islam is considered the only correct and moral way to live. The systematic and continual persecution of Christians has ensured Pakistan has remained in the top ten of the World Watch List for countries where Christian persecution is most severe. Additionally, the US has placed Pakistan on the Countries of Particular Concern List, which highlights states that severely impair and refuse to allow freedom of religion. These lists are one of the reasons for the poor Pakistani-American relations in most recent years, and it does not seem to be set to change under Khan’s leadership. As recently as March, Pakistan introduced new legislation stipulating that upon application to certain governmental and judicial jobs, applicants must submit alongside their paperwork a declaration that Mohammed was the final prophet (Mission Network News). Personal freedoms do not appear to be high on Khan’s agenda; he seems to be increasingly concerned with restructuring Pakistan’s international relations and economy rather than focusing on its citizens’ strife.

Bahria Mosque in Lahore, the capital city of Pakistan

Are we destined to see another leader take to the global stage and use his platform to further his own agenda? As far as we have seen with every new leader, absolutely. To some extent, every leader uses their power to further their own personal agenda through political means. However, Khan has potential to be ever more dangerous on an international level. His links to the military and apparent disregard for the individual in favour of the entire nation indicate his leadership style will become increasingly contentious in the international community as his term continues. The threat to Pakistani rights and women’s freedoms is severe, and only time will tell as to what extent the international community will be able to negotiate with Khan to protect those rights.

As one journalist puts it: “predicting the country’s future is like politely asking fate to spit in your face” (Akbar Shahid Ahmed, Huffington Post). Pakistan under Imran Khan may serve to surprise us yet. However, the prime minister has the backing of a formidable military, and with so many cards to play, Imran Khan is keeping them close to his chest.

At the time of writing, Alice Robson is a second year History and Social Anthropology student at the University of St Andrews. She is particularly interested in international human rights and global intersectional feminism.