These are, to paraphrase an American independence hero, the times that try Pakistani souls.

Yes, the May election marks a democratic milestone. But let’s not be fooled. The nation remains mired in a deep — and arguably unprecedented — crisis.

This begs a question that many — from cynical Pakistani intellectuals to dismissive Washington analysts — are unwilling to ask: Given the depths of Pakistan’s troubles (a colleague recently described it as “a train wreck in slow motion”), and given the colossal leadership failures of recent years, would a Prime Minister Imran Khan really be such a bad thing?

Admittedly, we’re likely talking about pure hypotheticals; the odds are against Khan assuming power. But as a supremely popular cricket hero-turned-politician, he’s well worth discussing.

For voters, Khan is the quintessential high-risk investment. Because neither he, nor his party has ever led a government, his candidacy is fraught with uncertainty. If he were to take power, the returns could be intoxicatingly high — or dangerously low.

On the one hand, Khan and the PTI embody what Pakistan needs most: Hope. And not just in the abstract sense. The PTI’s internal party elections suggest a commitment to strengthening democracy in a country where the institution remains fragile. The party’s clean reputation brings credibility to its intention to root out corruption. Its release of a social media code of conduct legitimises its desire to introduce more civility. And its announcement of a manifesto for the disabled demonstrates its determination to bring more inclusivity to a nation long defined by exclusion and division.

Additionally, Khan’s repeated condemnations of sectarian violence are striking; he says what most politicians simply don’t say (“I tell you by name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi … there can be no bigger enemy of Islam than you”). Such denunciations give hope that he would tackle one of Pakistan’s chief security threats.

On the other hand, Khan’s lack of experience in government could translate to disastrous policy decisions — when the nation cannot afford any more of them. His constant tendency to blame America and the West for Pakistan’s ills raises the possibility of yet another leader who shirks responsibility and outsources blame. His perplexing position on militancy — he denounces the country’s “strategic assets” (such as LeJ) while extending olive branches to rabidly anti-state extremists (such as TTP) — telegraphs a reluctance to unequivocally confront such a deadly scourge. And news of an electoral alliance with the hardline JI raises red flags galore.

In other words, we don’t know what to expect. Khan could defy vested interests, and introduce tax reforms and reorient the national budget toward the social sector. He could galvanise his supporters from the young, urban middle class — a critical long-term demographic — and position the country to reap a long-elusive demographic dividend.

Or, he could try to do these things and fail miserably. He could discard his populist campaign rhetoric, sell out, and succumb to the system and its vested interests. One of his most misguided insinuations — when America leaves the region, Pakistan’s security situation will magically improve — could infect policymaking and allow a dangerous complacency to take root.

These are both terrific and terrifying returns — and we don’t know which type would materialise.

Yet, here’s a question. Would even the most dreadful of returns be any worse than the consequences of another PPP-led or, more likely, a PML-N-led government?

The latter scenario is admittedly low-risk: The consequences won’t be pretty, but you basically know what you’re getting — much of the same as before. Understandably, many are OK with this option. After all, given Pakistan’s perilous plight, why embrace more risk? Why jeopardise the relative comfort of “muddling along”?

But consider the likely consequences. Unless pessimism has taken my reasoning hostage, we can assume neither the PPP nor PML-N will muster the will to implement critical reforms — or to take bolder steps against militancy. These are dynastic parties locked in a tight embrace with vested interests. They represent entrenched feudal and agricultural interests, and defer to entrenched military and religious interests — most of which staunchly resist change.

In effect, we’d witness the jealous guarding of an increasingly untenable status quo.

This isn’t an appealing prospect. Unless, that is, the returns from a PTI government are so disastrous that they accelerate Pakistan’s seemingly inevitable downward spiral — a spiral that previous governments, up to now (thanks to Pakistanis’ resourcefulness), have kept at bay.

Ultimately, these are all unknowns. But this we know: the contrast between the established parties and the PTI is sharp. One day after bickering PPP and PML-N officials failed to select a caretaker prime minister, the PTI mobilised at least 150,000 people at a hope-infused rally.

So would a Prime Minister Khan be such a bad thing? There’s no way of knowing. But would it be the worst bad thing? Call me naive, but I’m inclined to say: Not necessarily.


The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


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