Imran Khan’s victory and the question of South Asian Strategic Stability

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) has finally emerged as the largest party with 115 of 272 seats in the National Assembly and is set to form the government. A strong opposition led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Majlis e Amal - which denounced the results terming them as the army’s handiwork - is set to play an almost vindictive role in the Parliament. The sympathy factor Nawaz Sharif had expected did not pay off, nor did his brother Shahbaz Sharif efforts to use Nawaz’s victimization to catch the voters’ attention until the end of the election campaign. The situation parallels the 2013 election results, when it was Imran Khan who alleged poll-rigging, and led a four month long sit-in against the PML-N in late 2014.  


There are no doubts that the army and the judiciary had their roles in denying a level playing field to the PML-N this time; however, this should not diminish Imran Khan’s role in mobilizing the populace around corruption and governance as the sole issues driving his campaign. Over the last few months (especially after April’s Gallup poll had showed PML-N having a lead over the PTI), a closer reading of social media trends and the latest opinion polls demonstrates that not only did popular support for Imran Khan grow, but voters across Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Urban Sindh (where PTI won its maximum share of votes) and youth voters in general had Sharif’s corruption in mind. This is substantiated by the PTI’s performance in Punjab’s nerve centres like Multan, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad (and a notable breach in Lahore), where several PML-N bigwigs (including former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Railways Minister Saad Rafique) lost. Critics, however, contest the notion of an Imran wave claim by citing 51.8% voter turnout (lesser than the 55% in 2013), in addition to the accusations of rigging which have emerged during the ballot counting process. The alleged failure of the Election Commission’s Result Transmission System (RTS) in the midst of counting, and the resulting denial of any such failure by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA, the creator of RTS), does raise doubts.    


Poor performance by new extremist parties, especially the Allah O Akbar Tehreek (which could not win any seat) and the Barelvi Tehreek e Labaik Pakistan (which did slightly better, winning two provincial assembly seats from Karachi and a 4.2% share of the national vote) may be a relief for the Pakistanis, but in no way does this point towards the absence of religious-minded voters, which have been strong constituencies of the PML-N (in Punjab) and the PTI.   


Furthermore, the run-up to the elections and the post-election scene confirmed how the PTI had been reaching out to extremists, particularly the leaders of the Deobandi sect. Imran Khan’s meeting with Fazlur Rehman Khalil of the notorious Harakat network and the party’s outreach to independent Member of Punjab Provincial Assembly Muavia Azam (son of Azam Tariq, the slain chief of an erstwhile extremist organization Sipah e Sahaba) points towards a possible absorption of Deobandis into its vote bank.   


Besides the anti-Nawaz Sharif agenda, other factors which make Imran the army’s natural choice are his hawkish views on India and a gradual acceptance of the division of powers with the army (after spending years accusing the it of intervening in politics). The military is happy to see Imran work on improving infrastructure, curbing corruption, delivering on governance issues and restructuring the economy. However, it would continue to manage the security and external affairs by itself. For now, Imran Khan seems accepting of these terms, and will continue to support the army’s agenda unless he is compelled to carve out an independent India policy (something which may lead to a debacle akin to Nawaz Sharif’s).  


This became evident in his first public address a day after the elections. His words more or less matched what those in Rawalpindi wanted him to say. While his statement that "if India takes one step [on Kashmir] we will take two,” is subjective, it is imperative to understand his intentions to act in accordance with the military’s Kashmir policy. He emphasized other aspects of bilateral cooperation, but kept them conditional on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. 


Likewise, his track record of sympathizing with the Taliban also falls in line with that of the Pakistani army, which pushes the case for institutionalizing Taliban’s share in running Kabul’s affairs. In a recent news discussion, senior PTI leader Shireen Mazari supported the case for mainstreaming the Taliban as Americans had failed to dislodge them from the Afghan socio-political fabric, something that possibly alludes to the party’s expected line of action.  


Despite mounting challenges from the Taliban this year, the success of the Eid ceasefire in June and the growing acknowledgement of the Islamic State as a common enemy (by the Washington, Kabul and the Taliban) could prompt the new government to intensify its support for mainstreaming the Taliban, thus risking Washington and New Delhi’s long-term role in assisting the war-torn nation.  


In short, while an enthusiastic citizenry awaits the new regime to deliver on the domestic front, the question of South Asia’s strategic stability looms large.   



- Prateek Joshi is a Research Associate with Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.