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Who Is Imran Khan, Pakistan's New Prime Minister? Three Questions to Christophe Jaffrelot

Who Is Imran Khan, Pakistan's New Prime Minister? Three Questions to Christophe Jaffrelot
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

Former cricket star Imran Khan, who won the general elections in Pakistan last July, became head of a coalition government on Saturday 18 August. The following day, he delivered his first speech as Prime Minister, in which he presented his vision for a "new Pakistan". Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS and Visiting Professor at King's College London, answers our questions.

Who is Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, who was sworn in on Saturday 18 August?

Imran Khan was successively known as the captain of Pakistan's cricket team that won the country's first World Cup in 1992, as a philanthropist who notably created a hospital for cancer patients, and finally as a politician who founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI - “Pakistan Movement for Justice”) in 1996.
Once at the helm of the PTI, his main priority was to fight against political corruption. He also took a virulent anti-American and nationalist stance when the United States multiplied drone strikes at the end of the 2000s. He is a populist who combines contrasting ideological traits. He inherited a modern, to not say cosmopolitan, image due to his sporting career and his first marriage with Jimmy Goldsmith's daughter. Yet he then rediscovered Islam and now defends Sharia law. His third wife, whom he considers as his spiritual guide, wears a veil worn by no other First Lady of Pakistan before.    

On Sunday 19 August, Imran Khan delivered his first speech as Prime Minister. What are the main issues he will have to face during his term?

The emergency today is financial: Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy. Yet turning to the IMF, as was done five years ago, is complicated. The United States - which plays a key role in the organization - has already made it clear that any credit line would be conditional upon a presentation to the IMF of the terms and conditions of the debt already owed by Islamabad to China. However, neither Beijing nor Islamabad want to make public information that would reveal the extent to which Pakistan has alienated its sovereignty by agreeing to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, through which the Chinese intend to rehabilitate the "Silk Road". If the IMF is not called upon, the Chinese might make an effort. Pakistan will certainly also turn to Saudi Arabia, but this would provide Riyadh with yet another argument supporting its request that Pakistan gets involved in the Yemen war (something Islamabad refuses to do, so as not to upset its Iranian neighbor). Imran Khan, who has just come to power, is thus confronted with a financial question underpinned by significant geopolitical implications.  
Another key challenge concerns Afghanistan, where the Talibans are making steady progress (they now control 40% of the country) and where Daesh strives to exist through a series of severe terrorist attacks. Pakistan is keen to take part in the negotiations that the great powers - starting with Russia - aim to conduct in order to restore peace in the country. Imran Khan was once designated by some Taliban groups as a legitimate interlocutor. But finding an agreement that suits all parties will be difficult, because Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President, will want to avoid Pakistan exerting too much influence on his country. India, along with Iran, will try to help him on this matter, by appearing as Kabul’s partner - an alliance the Pakistani army does not appreciate much.
From a domestic point of view, the rise of Islamism remains an important challenge, as confirmed by the recent elections. For the first time, extremist groups close to the army were given the opportunity to “normalize” themselves by playing the electoral game. Some of their candidates obtained remarkable scores, which testifies to the radicalization of a branch of Pakistani Islam, the Barelvis, which had hitherto been rather moderate. While Imran Khan agrees with some of the Islamic groups’ ideas, he can only be concerned by the tensions that the rise of Islamism could induce, in particular between Sunnis and Shiites (who represent about 20% of the population).

The Prime Minister of Pakistan called for a renewed dialogue with India. What is the current state of relations and exchanges between the two neighboring powers?

Relations between the two countries have reached a low point in the past two years, as evidenced by the record number of ceasefire violations in Kashmir, resulting in civilian and military casualties, which no one talks about. It is very unlikely that the relations between the two countries will improve.

  • On the one hand, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, is launching his campaign (general elections should take place in Spring). The image of firmness towards Pakistan he has acquired is one of his key electoral assets: he will therefore do everything he can to preserve it. 

  • On the other hand, Imran Khan will be very cautious. After all, it is because he wanted to make peace with India that his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, lost the army’s trust. The latter’s power is immense in Pakistan, and it is utterly opposed to normalizing bilateral relations: by losing this enemy, the army would lose its main purpose and would struggle to justify its huge budget. In fact, Imran Khan is now head of the country because the military wanted to replace Sharif and couldn’t find anyone else! It will be very difficult for him to emancipate himself from this guardianship, especially when it comes to the Indian issue.

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