Will Imran Khan Turn Pakistan Into an Islamic Welfare State?

The onetime cricket star has a public-spirited reputation, but his policies bode ill for the country.

By Sadanand Dhume
Courtesy : wall street journal

More than two decades after he joined politics, Imran Khan is tantalizingly close to becoming Pakistan’s prime minister. In parliamentary elections later this month, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf may well emerge as the single largest party.

Even his admirers would concede that Mr. Khan owes much to friends in high places. Bluntly put, he is playing a fixed match. Pakistan’s military-dominated establishment virtually railroaded Mr. Khan’s main rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, out of the contest.

Fans of Mr. Khan, a former cricket player, hail him as an incorruptible outsider who will cleanse politics. But his knee-jerk anti-Americanism, record of pandering to fundamentalist clerics, and promise to create an “Islamic welfare state” bode ill for Pakistan. With a stuttering economy and a reputation for fostering jihad against its neighbors, the troubled nation needs a dose of introspection. Mr. Khan represents a doubling down on denial.

The long-beleaguered Mr. Sharif received a fresh jolt last week when an anticorruption court sentenced him to 10 years in prison and fined him the equivalent of $10.6 million for failing to explain convincingly how his family acquired four luxury apartments in London’s tony Park Lane neighborhood. The former prime minister says he is innocent and will appeal the ruling.

The court also sentenced Mr. Sharif’s daughter and putative political heir, 44-year-old Maryam Nawaz Sharif, to seven years in prison and a $2.6 million fine. Both Sharifs face arrest Friday when they return to Pakistan from London, where Mr. Sharif’s wife is undergoing treatment for throat cancer.

The verdict against Mr. Sharif, elected prime minister three times and yet to complete a term in office, could mark the end of his political road. Though he started out as a protégé of the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, tussles with the army over control of foreign and security policy marked Mr. Sharif’s last two stints in office.

A court forced Mr. Sharif to resign last year following an investigation that arose from the 2016 publication of the so-called Panama Papers, leaked documents that detailed a shadowy offshore law firm’s wealth management for the ultra-rich. Prosecutors could not prove corruption charges against Mr. Sharif, but they found that he had failed to disclose income from a family-owned firm in the United Arab Emirates. The court ruled that he had not lived up to a vague constitutional requirement, borrowed from Islamic texts, that requires Pakistan’s rulers to be “truthful and trustworthy.”

Mr. Sharif’s supporters, as well as many independent analysts, believe the military and the judiciary worked in tandem to oust the prime minister as payback for his attempt to prosecute former dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf for leading a coup in 1999. He is also resented for trying to assert civilian control over national-security policy, including Pakistan’s relationship with India.

Joshua White, an expert on South Asian politics who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, sees “the weaponization of the judiciary” and “the manipulation of the media” as evidence that the military is clearing the way for Mr. Khan’s ascendance.

What should we expect from Mr. Khan as prime minister? For many Pakistanis, his reputation for personal probity sets him apart from his money-grubbing peers. His establishment of Pakistan’s first cancer hospital and a college for underprivileged youth suggest an all too rare spirit of public service.

Mr. Khan is comfortable interacting with global elites. He studied at Oxford, was captain of the national cricket team, and was married to British heiress Jemima Goldsmith. That could give Pakistan a champion in the West it has lacked since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007.

Unfortunately, none of this makes up for a worldview that blends the laziest leftist clichés with absurd Islamist fictions. Instead of acknowledging the army’s well-documented support for radical Islamist outfits, Mr. Khan blames America for Pakistan’s terrorism problem. He supports fundamentalist positions, including a cruel blasphemy law that leaves religious minorities vulnerable to lynch mobs.

Mr. Khan’s signature economic idea, to turn Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state, belongs in a fairy tale. His denunciation of English-speaking liberals as “scum” suggests little sympathy for democratic values.

Many of Mr. Khan’s retrograde views resonate with voters. But Pakistan needs a prime minister who will lead it to a brighter future, not one who stunts democracy by leaning on the army for support and panders to every popular prejudice that brings him a step closer to power.

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