Barry McNamara  |   Published September 03, 2018

Assessing Pakistan’s New Leader

Monmouth professor Farhat Haq a keen observer of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
  • Monmouth College political science professor Farhat Haq is shown doing a television interview about Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Can a celebrity with limited political experience successfully lead a nation?

With the Aug. 18 election of Imran Khan as their prime minister, the people of Pakistan will find out. And Monmouth College political science professor Farhat Haq, who also serves as president of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, is paying close attention.

“There is tremendous excitement, among particularly the young people in Pakistan,” she said.

A world-famous cricketer, Khan’s rise to power in Pakistan has been slow and steady over the past two decades. Haq says Khan now finds himself in a situation similar to that of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Political cynicism

“Drain the swamp, absolutely,” she said, when asked if that could be Khan’s rallying cry in Pakistan. “Khan has a reformist agenda of ending corruption and making people accountable. He’s not a political insider,” although he has been involved in politics longer than President Trump.

In 1996, Khan started Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), a centrist political party.

“In the first few elections, his party never drew more than 3 percent of the vote,” said Haq. “But gradually the party began to do a little better every time and, finally, his moment has arrived. … The hope is that Khan as an outsider can come in and clean things up, but it doesn’t always work out that way. You’ve got to have that Parliamentary experience, and Khan does have that. He’s implementing some parts of his agenda. There’s a lot of hope that he’ll succeed.”

Haq said that a “cynicism” toward politics does not only permeate the United States and Pakistan.

“You see that ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric in many other countries, too, including Brazil,” she said. “There, former president Lula (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva) is in jail, but a poll shows he’s also the top contender in their next election.”

Pakistan’s former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is also in jail, an unfortunate reality that Haq said Khan did not initiate.

“I had sympathies with the predecessor,” she said. “Sharif was like our John McCain. He wanted to strengthen democracy and limit the military.”

Khan’s balancing act

Beloved in Pakistan for helping the country win its only World Cup in cricket in 1992, Khan has “an international playboy-type reputation,” said Haq. His first wife was British.

“Khan has his feet in both the Western world and in the Muslim world,” she said. “Those are two worlds in tension, so it helps Khan that he understands the West quite well but also identifies with the Muslim world.”

In that regard, Haq said Khan has something in common with former U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Obama was both black and white,” she said. “He also was relatively new to politics when he was elected president and wasn’t seen as a long-time Washington insider.”

Another person with feet in two places is Haq herself, who regularly visits her native Pakistan and is often contacted by media there to comment on the political landscape.

“From my perspective, the filter through which one side looks at the other is very distorted,” she said, using Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban as an example. “Khan has been criticized in the U.S. for believing that we should all negotiate with the Taliban, but the U.S. is moving in that direction, too. Most of the coverage in Western press has characterized Khan as pro-Taliban, which he’s not. … Both sides have their own filters and their own narratives.”

But rather than finding reasons to be divided, Haq believes both sides would be served by finding common ground.

“In our world today, it is important to build bridges, not to blow up bridges,” she said.

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