Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: AFP/ PTI
An aide to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been accused of hiding a family business empire overseas. Photo: AFP / PTI

Finally, the “establishment” man Imran Khan has assumed the office of prime minister. He won the votes of 176 members of the National Assembly to become the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan.

The opposition candidate, Shahbaz Sharif, managed to get only 96 votes, as the Pakistan Peoples Party abstained from the voting. It was a deliberate move by the PPP to divide the opposition as money-laundering cases are pending against party leader Asif Zardari, so he could not afford the wrath of the establishment at the moment.

Imran Khan, after winning a simple majority in the assembly, tried to give a speech, but protest from the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) made it almost impossible for him to speak. In fact, for the very first time in the history of the country, a newly elected prime minister was not congratulated by the opposition but instead faced slogans of “vote thief” and “puppet prime minister.”

In retaliation, Khan lost his cool and threatened to take the accountability process further. This process, it has to be remembered, has been used as a tool by the military establishment since the first martial law was imposed in 1958 to undermine democracy and dissent by political leaders.

It was frightening to see Imran Khan losing his temper over the criticism and slogans of the opposition. After all, he is the prime minister now, and if he loses his cool so easily it creates doubt in the minds of many on how he will tackle international pressure.

It was frightening to see Imran Khan losing his temper over the criticism and slogans of the opposition. After all, he is the prime minister now, and if he loses his cool so easily it creates doubt in the minds of many on how he will tackle international pressure

In any case, this has shown that the recent elections in Pakistan have solved nothing; in fact, they have further divided the nation. There is a clear divide between the pro- and anti-establishment narratives.

In his first address to the nation, Imran Khan tried to cover up the blunder he made on the floor of the house. He delivered a speech of hope and promises to the nation but with shady characters like Aleem Khan and Jahangir Tareen as his advisers and also controlling his party, it is highly unlikely that he will actually bring any change in the country.

Khan allegedly owes his victory to the mighty military establishment, which critics say helped him win through pre- and post-poll rigging. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his allies stand against the military-dominated narrative and are facing the consequences as the result. Both Nawaz and his daughter Maryam are facing delays in their court hearings against the controversial judgment of the accountability court that put them behind bars.

Imran Khan now faces stiff challenges. On the one hand, he needs to take quick measures to fix the economy, and on the other hand, he needs legitimacy, as for many he has stolen the mandate with the help of the military establishment.

So far he has not been able to kill this perception. In fact, he has strengthened the narrative of him being a puppet of the establishment by including in his cabinet people who were part of the cabinet of the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, such as lawyer Firogh Naseem, Zubaida Jalal, and Sheikh Rasheed,

Another challenge is to win the trust of China and Turkey, as both of those countries were very comfortable dealing with Sharif’s government. How he will handle the pressure from Washington to do more in the war against terrorism remains a serious concern, as US President Donald Trump and Imran Khan are same in nature. Both are impulsive, are short-tempered and dislike criticism and opposition.

A pro-Taliban approach by Khan could suit the establishment’s purpose in Afghanistan but it will definitely continue to hurt Pakistan’s global image. Maybe global players, knowing that it was the establishment that brought Khan to power, will prefer to deal with the military directly instead of with him.

On the domestic front, he will be facing a stiff opposition from the PML-N and the other opposition parties and soon the opposition will start agitation on the streets as well; after all, that is what Khan has been doing for the last five years, and it seems to be his turn now to taste his own medicine.

The PML-N is under enormous pressure from its supporters and elected representatives not to let Khan govern easily. The PML-N vote bank thinks its mandate was stolen and that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter were sent to jail because they refused to take dictation from the establishment and thereby posed a great threat to its hegemony in state affairs.

This leaves no option for the PML-N other than to agitate both in the parliament and on the streets to keep its vote bank intact, and this means that the Sharifs’ narrative will prevail in the ranks of the party. For Khan and his mentors, this will not solve any problems, as if the narrative against the establishment and its puppets continue to prevail, it will be next to impossible to run state affairs smoothly.

Khan’s already weak coalition government cannot afford too much pressure from the opposition. Keeping this in view, the establishment has given a little share of the cake to the Pakistan Peoples Party by giving it the government in the province of Sindh and also trapped it by the weapon of accountability and opening corruption cases against its leadership, and for the time being it has managed to silence the PPP. But the battleground is Punjab, not Sindh.

It is the mandate of Punjab that has been stolen and it is the leaders from Punjab who are behind bars. Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz, has tried to change the narrative to appease the establishment, but he has failed miserably, as the narrative of civilian and democratic supremacy has become more strong.

It is impossible even for Nawaz and Maryam now to step back from this narrative and mend fences with the establishment. Imran Khan in this war remains a puppet and it seems he will be the ultimate casualty in the war between Sharif and the invisible forces.

He has been launched by the establishment as a superhero who can fix the country’s problems in the blink of an eye, so the urban elite and upper middle class have high hopes that he will fix things for them. But to bring real change Khan needs to focus on improving governance and bringing structural changes in the government institutions. For that to happen he needs an atmosphere of stability and peace in the country, which is not in sight in near future, as he along with the military establishment has been busy destabilizing the previous governments, and both should be ready to face the same now.

The slogans of “Give respect to my vote” and “vote thief” will haunt Imran Khan and his mentors until the hijacked mandate of the people is returned to them. Stability and democratic supremacy remain a dream in Pakistan as Khan’s own legitimacy and election credibility are lost in a bid to undermine dissenting political narratives and leaders.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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