July 29, 2018: Imran’s moment has arrived

As expected, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has emerged as the winner in the recent general elections. Finally, Imran Khan’s struggle for the last two decades and especially during the past few years is bearing fruit. That Khan ascends the Islamabad throne with the support of powerful quarters is no secret. Equally important is that he has the mandate of millions of voters who trust him. This is a unique combination but it also places immense burden on him to deliver.

The level of ‘trust’ can be assessed by the total votes that PTI gained. According Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) data, PTI gained 16.8 million votes followed by PMLN that bagged 12.8 million and PPP that was preferred by 6.9 million voters. In 2013, PTI secured nearly 7.7 million votes and this time it’s voteshare has more than doubled. Interestingly, while the majority of these votes are from the Punjab province, PTI has earned support of voters in all other provinces as well. The PPP retained its share of the total votes cast compared to 2013 while the PMLN lost nearly 2 million supporters countrywide.

The stunning increase in support for PTI, the charges of rigging and/or engineering aside, indicate that the electorate is maintaining its penchant to vote out the incumbents. In 2013, Pakistanis threw out the PPP from power and in 2018, the PMLN has been shown the door. Of course, PMLN was at a relative disadvantage for its more popular leaders in jail and the party’s reputation tainted due to the Panama Leaks aided and abetted by mainstream media in the cities and towns where public opinion is constructed and distilled.

In 2013, PTI secured nearly 7.7 million votes and this time it’s vote share has more than doubled

PMLN was going to suffer also due to the split within the party’s public messaging. Shehbaz Sharif’s developmentalist agenda was at variance with his elder brother’s tough stance against the military and the judiciary. That the PMLN remains formidable in the Punjab despite all the setbacks is something that merits a more detailed analysis. But Shehbaz Sharif miscalculated the mood of his support base and also forgot that wooing the establishment was not going to work for it was willing to bet on a better horse in the electoral race. PMLN has some time to recalibrate its policy and rethink the mistakes that its leaders committed during the past one year.

This moment clearly belongs to Khan.

In his uncharacteristically humble and substantive ‘victory’ speech, Khan reiterated what he has been saying for many years. Anticorruption, poverty eradication, human development, reorienting VIP culture, better ties with neighbours and so on. In addition, he also agreed for a recount in constituencies where his opponents are complaining of rigging. More importantly, he sounded like a statesman by willing to ignore the personal attacks on him and by promising no political victimization.

There has been never a shortage of good intentions in the land of the pure. What has always been missing is the required implementation framework for the antiquated bureaucratic structures are simply unable to deliver the goods. Let’s hope that Khan’s team undertakes a comprehensive civil service reform for that would certainly make the incoming administration different than PMLN and PPP who failed to deliver on that front.

PTI will also rule Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and most likely the Punjab province. PTI’s performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — actual and mediatised — helped the party in 2018 polls. KP Police was perceived as ‘reformed’ and interventions in health and education sectors were also noted for their impact. But extending the KP experiment will not be that easy especially in the Punjab where the bureaucracy as true inheritor of British steelframe is known to protect its institutional interests before any measure of change can be realized.

This is why the choice of cabinet members, advisers and top bureaucrats at the centre and in the provinces will indicate how the PTI will usher in the change that it has promised. And it is beyond people with corruption cases. It also entails competence and record of delivery.

Beyond the technocratic issues, Khan’s ride is not going to be smooth. To begin with, the issues of elections’ legitimacy are not going anywhere despite the PPP and pragmatic Shehbaz Sharif settling for participation in the system. Khan’s government will have to deal with a huge opposition in Islamabad and Lahore and it’s not going to be an easy feat. In case, the PMLN tries to use the PTI tactics of protesting against ‘rigging’, this will make it difficult for PTI to implement its reform and development agenda. As regards anticorruption efforts, Khan will have to tread carefully for he will have to demonstrate that his efforts are across the board and not selective. And that is easier said than done.

Finally, any change to the national security paradigm that sets the foreign policy objectives will be resisted if not scuttled. In short, the next few years will test the leadership skills of Imran Khan and also the forbearance of his impatient supporters who would want overnight changes that have been repeatedly promised.

In the next few months, the PTI government will grapple with the economic crisis at hand including the decision to sign a deal with the International Monetary Fund and getting the CPEC projects back on track that have slowed down in the recent past.

That Imran Khan starts with a promise of change with substantial public support, is, a good omen.