The Pakistani elections of 25 July ended the traditional dominance of the country’s mainstream parties and catapulted Imran Khan, a former cricket superstar and media playboy, into the improbable role of reformist prime minister. Although Mr Khan will have to woo MPs from Pakistan’s smaller parties to form a working parliamentary coalition, the result, which gave his Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) party over 115 seats in the 269 seat legislature, should make this a foregone conclusion. While there have been strong protestations from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that the traditionally interventionist military worked to tilt the playing field in favour of the PTI (to the point of arranging PML leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s arrest weeks before the poll), international observers have been unable to find conclusive evidence the contest was rigged.
Foreign press coverage, particularly western, has tended to focus on Mr Khan’s long-stated opposition to the US war on terror (President Donald Trump already cut USD 1bn in annual military aid in January), his sympathetic statements concerning the Afghan Taliban, and his admiration of the Chinese development model.
But the election result has less to do with conservative Islamic trends in Pakistani society, and more to do with a crumbling economy and public frustration with the country’s dynastic parties. Mr Khan successfully painted himself in the role of a populist who shuns the rich trappings of office and will crack down on corruption. Moreover, his immediate focus will almost certainly be restoring investor confidence in an economy which is bloated by inefficient state-owned enterprises, a budget deficit approaching 8% of GDP, and whose currency has depreciated 20% since December 2017, hitting living standards hard.