Pakistan’s new prime minister is not the liberal reformer you might thinkby Husna Rizvi / August 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Photo: Rana Sajid Hussain/Zuma Press/PA Images The inauguration of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s new prime minister, which takes place on Saturday, should be a moment of celebration. The former cricket captain ran on an anti-corruption platform and his party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice, garnered support from a middle class frustrated with a landowning elite. When Khan takes office it will be the country’s second uninterrupted civilian transfer of power in its 70-year history. In his victory speech, Khan promised to recreate the social egalitarian vision of the first Islamic city-state, Medina. But just what this “Naya Pakistan” will look like is unclear. The trouble with parties organised around the persona of their leadership is that the politics beneath can become obscured. For a leader who has promised to build both a welfare state and administer an IMF-driven austerity programme, this has been an advantage. But once in office, the differences between Khan’s rhetoric and the policies he is implementing will be harder to square. Aisha Sarwari, a Pakistani feminist author, told me: “Imran Khan has tremendous charisma. He has built schools and a cancer hospital. People consider him a son of the soil, a restorer of Pakistani pride given the 1992 cricket world cup win and not to mention an Oxford education. “That makes the middle classes believe PTI can disrupt the order of rotational ‘king parties’ that have undoubtedly been corrupt and disillusioning.” But look a bit closer, she said, and you’ll quickly find examples of alleged corruption among both the party’s campaign funders and its candidates. She added “one of them is a convicted rapist.” He has since been expelled after social media backlash. This isn’t the first time Khan has been embroiled in a harassment scandal. Last year a female PTI politician, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, alleged he sent her inappropriate text messages. In return, allies of Khan demanded 30m rupees (around £218,000) from Wazir for causing “mental torture” with her accusation. The party has yet to establish any accountability mechanisms for misconduct allegations. Sarwari first encountered Khan at an organising meeting in 2012 whilst pitching a gender-focused policy for their manifesto. “He said women don’t need protection in Pakistan because here, they’re honoured. If you go to the west, women are treated like pieces of meat.” His voting record on domestic violence legislation doesn’t bode much better. Khan blocked a pro-woman amendment to the Hudood Ordinances in 2006 that made DNA evidence admissible in rape cases. And in 2016, he declined to back the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, instead deferring the decision to the Islamic Council of Ideology, who later called the Bill “un-Islamic.” Cracks began to show at a rally in June, when Khan pledged explicitly to defend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which according to Persecution.org have led to lifetime incarceration and death penalties for 1,500 people for defaming the Prophet Muhammad. Unlike Khan, establishment politicians know well to avoid politicking around blasphemy laws. In 2016, an enraged mob of thousands stormed Islamabad’s streets to protest the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered his then-boss, the governor of Punjab, for advocating against the laws. It was a fork-in-the-road moment for Pakistan that genuinely scared mainstream parties. Most worryingly, Khan is the first major politician in generations to openly defend the very laws Salman Taseer—the progressive governor—was murdered over. Khan’s platform is uniquely draconian according to Ehsan Rehan, editor of Rabwah Times, which is a publication for Ahmadis, a religious minority currently barred from voting. “Most of the recent anti-Ahmadi bigotry has come mainly from one source and that is the PTI. His speeches are reminiscent of Bhutto and Zia, who constitutionally barred us from the electorate. PTI workers have physically attacked Ahmadi Mosques. Khan even withdrew a job offer to an economist after finding out he was Ahmadi.” As for where the party is headed, Ammar Rashid, a socialist Awami Workers’ Party organiser told me that the PTI might make piecemeal health and education reforms, but expects it to capitulate at the first sign of pressure from the religious right and grant concessions against women’s rights. He said: “Whilst in government in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunwa, PTI consistently pandered to the religious right who reinserted jihadist verses into school textbooks and generally re-oriented state curriculums from history to science in line with conservative interpretations of Islam. “They continue to claim they speak for the downtrodden, all the while deepening their organisational links with a ruling elite responsible for much of Pakistan’s problems.” If “Naya Pakistan” is to have a fighting chance, a critical engagement with Khan’s policy platform needs to be high up on the commentariat’s agenda. The fawning coverage of Khan has been jarring but unsurprising. The problem is that it fundamentally blurs what’s at stake for Pakistan’s downtrodden.