In addition to religious turmoil, violence and terrorism at home, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan faces a broad raft of geopoltical challenges - and opportunities.  Photo: AFP
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen as subservient to the military. Photo: AFP

Former cricket captain Imran Khan was sworn in as Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister at a ceremony of the National Assembly on Saturday, after the newly elected members voted him in. Khan will head a coalition government with a wafer-thin majority and face a slew of challenges on the economic and security fronts.

Khan gave an emotional speech in the Assembly, his first as the prime minister, calling it “22 years of struggle” to reach a place where he could build a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan). Khan founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in a bid to gain political power in a country that has seen more military dictatorships in 70 years than civilian democracy.

To highlight this point, Khan mentioned several times during his speech that he was not “nurtured by any military dictator.” Instead, he promised new hope and a departure from the traditional politics of Pakistan, which has been dominated by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – once headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir – and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Khan stressed that fighting corruption would be a key strategy for his new administration. “I swear with Allah as my witness that I will go after those who looted this nation for 70 years,” he told the Assembly, amid cheers from fellow legislators.

Throughout the campaign Khan, a tribal Pathan from the country’s northwest, promised that the corrupt would be targeted in a bid to resuscitate Pakistan’s economy. He emphasized that he would bring back the “stolen money” that had been spirited abroad by corrupt politicians and industrialists, weakening Pakistan’s economy.

But Khan’s government will face an escalating economic crisis, which threatens to destabilize Pakistan unless urgently needed funds are raised. But most of the measures Khan has suggested – such as turning around unprofitable state enterprises – will take a long time to deliver. Shafaqat Mehmood, appointed by Khan as education minister, told Reuters that the government “will work overtime to meet these huge expectations.”

Most observers agree that China will play a major role after Khan settles into his new responsibilities. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) having key roles in Pakistan, China will most likely provide economic assistance. However, critical observers believe these measures could push Pakistan into a greater “Chinese debt trap.” The Pakistani rupee has been falling consistently and the State Bank of Pakistan has not been able to arrest its drop.

While Khan deals with the economic crisis, the country’s stance on terrorism will be under the watchful eye of the international community. US President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy released late last year repeatedly cited Pakistan as a major challenge to global peace and US interests. Pakistan is also facing the possibility of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body that monitors the funding of designated terror organizations.

Khan has often been viewed as an apologist for terrorist organizations. His willingness to hold a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban has led to questions about his ability to end the country’s support for terror groups in the region. His “soft Islamic” agenda is also viewed as an indication that Pakistan could return to more fundamentalist ways in the coming days.

Khan will also have to balance relations with its neighbor India, which it has fought four times since independence. Observers in India are skeptical over Khan’s ability to deliver lasting peace between the nations and believe he has been supported by the Pakistan Army.

“We believe that he might try to chart an independent agenda after a year or so, but that will inevitably lead to a clash with the Pakistan Army’s deep-rooted interests,” a senior analyst told Asia Times.

Observers in India say Khan is unlikely to buck the trend that has never allowed any prime minister to complete a term in office. With history stacked against Khan, the next few months will prove crucial to Pakistan.

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