Tahir-ul Qadri (left) of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)  leader Imran Khan join hands at an anti-government rally in Lahore on January 17, 2018.
Photo: AFP / Arif Ali
Tahir-ul Qadri (left) of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan join hands at an anti-government rally in Lahore on January 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Arif Ali

“Today completes 22 years of struggle for me,” said Imran Khan, as he prepared to take over on Thursday as Pakistan’s 19th prime minister since 1947. But in reality, the battle is just beginning for a politician whose stated ambition is to create a just and egalitarian society.

Even Khan’s biggest supporters acknowledge this ideal will be hard to live up to in a nation burdened by chronic corruption and inequality.

“The challenge now is to remember why he entered politics in the 1st place,” former wife Jemima Goldsmith tweeted, while speaking glowingly of the “humiliations, hurdles and sacrifices” Khan had overcome. “It’s an incredible lesson in tenacity, belief & refusal to accept defeat,” added Goldsmith, who was married to Khan when he established the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) back in April 1996.

Another ex-wife, journalist Reham Khan, was less charitable. She wrote after Wednesday’s election that Pakistan was now “stuck with” Khan, and he was on the wrong side of history. Khan’s opponents will be quick to repeat this refrain if his leadership is found wanting.

Khan has always been upfront about his reasons for entering politics — Tehrik-e-Insaf means Movement of Justice — but he had only a limited political pedigree at the time. His two biggest achievements were leading Pakistan to victory in the cricket World Cup in 1992 and founding the non-profit cancer hospital Shaukat Khanum in 1994.

A crusader against corruption

But those close to Khan maintain that he has always wanted to create a better society, which will mean tackling the most entrenched issues: endemic corruption and a justice system that is tilted toward the powerful. Khan, they say, is the only one able to rid Pakistan of its ills.

This is the same theme that was trotted out by Khan in his first 15 years in Pakistani politics, when he had little to show for his struggles. PTI had no tangible gains in the 1997 and 2002 elections – the latter under military dictator General Pervez Musharraf – and boycotted the 2008 poll. Often on TV, Khan would speak of what he did not want Pakistan to be, but never gave a clear vision of what it should be.

That changed on October 30, 2011, when Khan orchestrated one of the largest rallies for decades in Punjab’s capital Lahore, giving a new lease of life to TPI as he laid out his plan to “save Pakistan”. The theme was making politicians accountable and asking them to come clean over money laundering. When Nawaz Sharif was disqualified as prime minister in July 2017 amid revelations from the Panama Papers scandal, Khan claimed his anti-corruption drive had been vindicated.

The show of strength by Khan attracted big-name recruits like Shah Mehmood Qureshi of Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) and veteran Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) politician Javed Hashmi, but the May 2013 elections came too soon for the PTI.

Even so, PTI emerged as the second-largest party in terms of its  popular vote behind PML-N, and managed to take control of the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. PML-N still ruled nationally, thanks mostly to a dominant position in key Punjab seats.

Khan paid heavily for his conciliatory approach at a time when Pakistan was caught up in a long-drawn-out battle with the Taliban; PTI was targeted during the 2013 election because he supported  negotiations with the jihadist group, earning its leader the nickname “Taliban Khan” after voters saw him as an apologist for militant Islam.

Khan held Islamabad hostage for more than four months from August 2014 with a demand that then prime minister Nawaz Sharif resign over allegations of rigging the 2013 poll

Any hopes of shaking off this unwanted label were ended when the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government provided millions of dollars’ worth of funding to a renowned Taliban seminary. Khan then spent the last few months of his election campaign reaffirming his support for the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat [finality of prophethood] movement, aimed at subjugating the marginalized Ahmadiyya sect.

Khan held Islamabad hostage for more than four months from August 2014 with a demand that then prime minister Nawaz Sharif resign over allegations of rigging the 2013 poll; significantly, the movement was reportedly backed by sections of the military establishment.

The 2014 sit-in established Khan as the army leadership’s man to take down Sharif, who had upset them by striving for improved relations with India. Other saw PTI’s tactics as fascist, relying as they did on mob tendencies.

There were no signs of this radical and divisive approach when Khan addressed the nation on Thursday: instead, viewers were regaled with the reconciliatory tones of a statesman, and a would-be reformer. Khan vowed to support an investigation of claims by opposition parties of vote-rigging in Wednesday’s poll, and he announced a formal farewell to what he dubbed the “politics of victimization”.

He followed the same line with his foreign policy, which was underpinned by Pakistan’s relations with China. Khan also stressed the need to improve trade ties with India, insisting that if India makes one step forward, “we will take two steps forward”. On the surface, this is a departure from the military leadership’s traditional outlook toward India, which has been based around the now-notorious “Good and Bad Taliban” security policy; Khan has endorsed this in the past.

Khan’s “accountability” rhetoric will be challenged if no action is taken against former army chief General Pervez Musharraf, who is facing treason charges. Nawaz Sharif has said he was sidelined by the military, with the help of the judiciary, for pursuing this case.

Tough choices to make on cabinet

Of immediate concern, Khan will have some key decisions to make regarding the makeup of his cabinet. Sources in the party maintain nothing has been finalised yet, but there are frontrunners for key positions. They could include business magnate Aleem Khan, who is tipped to become chief minister of Punjab, which PTI also controls.

Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi could be in for another stint, while outgoing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Pervez Khattak is floated as possibly the next interior minister.

Former banker and economist Asad Umar is favored to take over as  finance minister. He will inherit a free-falling rupee and a balance of payments crisis, but has already said he would seek a loan from China or a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. Tax changes are also on the cards, with Khan insisting on Thursday that he would improve the collection system, which would help increase trust in his government.

The biggest challenge will be security policies, which the army has traditionally controlled. With Islamic State claiming credit for the bloody election day attack in Quetta, which was supposedly to cement its presence in Balochistan, the heat will be on jihadist apologists.

Having played with fire, Khan has exploited the issue of Islamic extremism to build his political base nationally and in the region, but keeping up this stance will not address Pakistan’s security challenges or aid Khan’s diplomatic ambition of improving relations with South Asian states and the United States.

The question being asked now is how long such a radical viewpoint can be maintained in the prime minister’s office.