Pakistan’s New Prime Minister Could Change the Relationship with the US

In an election season surrounded by violence and scandal, the former Pakistani cricket star, Imran Khan, declared his political party victorious before the results were even official. Now, Khan is officially the new prime minister and he immediately made sweeping promises for change. “Today in front of you, in front of the people of Pakistan, I pledge I will run Pakistan in such a way as it has never before been run,” he said. And running Pakistan in a new way means reevaluating relations with the US.

When Pakistan became independent in 1947, the US was one of the first nations to establish relations with the new state. Over the decades, Pakistan has been an ally to the US, fighting Soviet communism and then terrorism after 9/11. But the longstanding relationship with Pakistan has been deteriorating and the recent Pakistani elections will have further impact on that relationship.

Moving forward, the Pakistani military will be a key player in Khan’s decisions and government. Since its beginning, Pakistan has been ruled by the military. It is famous for interfering in government and there has yet to be a prime minister that finishes his full term before being ousted by the military. For example, two years ago, the army brought a lawsuit against the prime minister Nawaz Sharif that led to his dismissal. The Cato Institute explained the general situation saying, “The Pakistan Army, therefore, views itself as the manager of the government rather than a subordinate.” Khan must tread lightly, but there are rumors that he has the support of the military, which will give him more opportunities to enact unopposed reform.

Khan ran on an anti-corruption and nationalistic platform which gained him plenty of support. He was backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party which then won the majority in parliament where 270 seats were open. Khan’s opposition was the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which has been surrounded by scandal during the past few years. The Muslim League-Nawaz’s candidate was Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of the former and disgraced prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Though Shahbaz Sharif was older and much more experienced than Khan, the corruption charges against his brother made voters suspicious. On the other hand, Khan’s promises of a new Pakistan resonated with the younger generation of Pakistan. And the younger generation now makes up the majority of the country’s population with about 64 percent of its population under the age of 30.

Khan will have a lot to deal with coming into office. Pakistan’s economy is falling apart, relations with the US are rocky, and decisions about relations with China must be made. And these decisions have to be made without angering the military that controls everything and keeps a tight grip on national security and foreign policy.

US-Pakistani relations have been suffering. For more than 15 years, Pakistan has been one of the US’s main allies in its war on terror. In 2002, America named Pakistan a major non-NATO ally which allowed military aid to start flowing into Pakistan. From 2002 to 2013 Pakistan received $25 billion in aid and military equipment. But now there is growing suspicion of Pakistan. In January, Trump criticized Pakistan for being soft on terrorism, said that “they have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” and froze $1.3 billion in military aid. But Pakistan doesn’t seem too fond of the US either. Khan addressed this sentiment in his victory speech saying, “Unfortunately, so far our relations were one-sided. America thinks that it gives Pakistan money to fight for them. Because of this Pakistan suffered a lot,” he said. Khan says he intends to make the relationship much less one sided. Khan’s decisions about relations with the US will also dictate how Pakistan will proceed with China. China has offered more than $60 billion to help with Pakistan’s infrastructure projects, and with a suffering economy, this is a very tempting offer for Pakistan.

Gareth Leather, an economist at Capital Economics, said, “Whichever party wins Pakistan’s upcoming general election will take over an economy on the brink of a balance of payments crisis. Growth is likely to slow sharply regardless of who wins Wednesday’s election.” Pakistan’s economy is now ranked as the worst in Asia. The currency has been devalued 15 percent just since December. “The economy is facing extreme stress. There is a need for urgent structural reforms,” Asad Umar, a member of Khan’s party, said. Therefore, partnering with China seems like a great option. Pakistan needs money and the US just froze some of its military aid, while China is offering billions in help. Khan will have to decide whether he wants to bow to China or the US to help his economy.

What does Khan’s election mean for Christians? The majority of Pakistan is Muslim, but Christians still make up a large minority. There is an estimated 2.5 million Christians in Pakistan. Since Khan’s opponent, Shahbaz Sharif, and his political party are staunchly Muslim, Khan’s victory could be a good thing for Christians. Christians in Pakistan have been continually targeted by Islamic extremist groups that have flourished under the government and military. But Khan takes a more lenient view toward all religions. A few years ago, he said in an interview, “We should respect each other’s religions. There should not be a competition. People should be each to his own. And I find this religious nationalism basically against the ethos of religion. And I find that when one religion tries to condemn another religion or tries to say that one is superior to the other, I think that’s where the problems begin.” Once in power and possibly backed by the military, this may all just become useless rhetoric. But where Christians are concerned it may be better that Khan comes into power instead of Sharif and his deeply Muslim political party.

Khan has a lot of decisions ahead of him and some of them could have a big impact on the region. The US has relied on Pakistan during its ongoing dealings with Afghanistan and there is a possibility that could come to an end. China could become more involved in the region. And if Khan does not get thrown out by the military, like all his predecessors, and if he actually follows through on some of the reforms he envisions, then Pakistan and the whole region could be facing some big changes in the future.

Abigail Liebing is an intern at Providence and a student at Hillsdale College, pursuing a B.A. in History and a minor in Journalism.

Photo credit: Imran Khan, via Wikimedia Commons 

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