Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of the book Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press, 2017). In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, DC. Ispahani was a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center from 2013-2014. A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012. In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. She was also a member of the Women’s caucus in the 13th National Assembly. The caucus, which straddled political divides, was instrumental in introducing more legislation on women’s issues than has ever been done before during a single parliamentary term. Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America’s Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC.
TEHRAN – Pakistan has just given mandate to Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) to form the new government, albeit with the help of other smaller parties. Despite controversies surrounding the election outcome, Imran Khan is all set to take oath as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan later this week. The new government faces many challenges in terms of domestic issues and foreign policy.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistani politician and former Member of the Parliament (MP). She served as Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012. She is currently Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington and is the author of the book ‘Purifying the Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’.
In an interview with Tehran Times, she spoke about the political transition in Pakistan, the challenges for the new government, Imran Khan’s foreign policy matters, Pakistan’s relations with Iran and the U.S. and why parties like PML-N and PPP will bounce back.
Following are the excerpts:
Q. Imran Khan is all set to become the new prime minister of Pakistan. What are the biggest challenges before his government?
A. The biggest challenge facing Pakistan today is the economy. We need both immediate and long term relief. Saudi Arabia and China are reported to have offered monetary help to the tune of $8 billion and $2 billion respectively and a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) program is also being considered. Even if the IMF program is obtained it will involve onerous conditions. Pakistan needs to break out of its cycles of boom and bust but for that serious reform, not gimmicks and temporary solutions, are needed.
The United States, which has bailed Pakistan out repeatedly since the early 1950s, seems unlikely to help generously this time.
After the pressing economic issues, the nation must deal with the continued presence of extremist parties and terrorist groups. There were several terrorist attacks during the recent election campaign and religious minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, face increasing challenges.
Education, health and other social sector indicators show Pakistan to be lagging behind. To correct that downward trajectory we need good long term policies and resources to implement them. Neither of which we have had for decades.
Q. The general election was marred by accusations of vote rigging allegedly engineered by the military. Do you think Imran Khan had the backing of military?
A. Yes. Imran Khan and the PTI have had the backing of the Pakistan army and establishment which includes the judiciary. The restrictions on the media were at an all-time high.
Pre-poll rigging has been accepted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the EU Election Observer team. Many Pakistani political parties, candidates, activists and media have reported election irregularities all over the country. So, proof of the engineered results exists. But, Mr. Khan also had his support base.
Q. In his campaign, Khan spoke about domestic issues like rebuilding institutions of governance and fighting corruption but he didn’t clearly outline his foreign policy. Do you think his foreign policy will be any different from his predecessors?
A. No. Mr. Khan has few foreign policy interests and no expertise or experience. However he had spoken in support of the Afghan Taliban and made some positive remarks about Pakistan’s allies Saudi Arabia and China. He has been largely anti-American in his past views.
The bottom line, however, is that the army controls foreign policy and they expect to continue to do so. If Khan steps out of line he will face the consequences like his predecessors.
Q. He also spoke about improving ties with Iran and playing a role in bringing Tehran and Riyadh closer. Is that going to happen?
A. The desire to improve relations with Iran is a positive one. Let us hope he can deliver that for regional stability. But he will have to tread carefully to not upset Pakistan’s other friends and benefactors.
As for acting as an intermediary, it’s highly unlikely that Pakistan can bridge serious and ongoing differences between the two Muslim countries. For that, the Iranian and Saudi leaders would have to find common ground themselves.
Q. Khan’s biggest test would be America because he has been critical of Trump’s foreign policy and has even supported Iranian nuclear deal. Do you think Pakistan has the best chance to come out of US shadow under him?
A. Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been directed by the Pakistani military and is destined to remain that way for the near future. The Trump administration has adopted a tough posture with Pakistan and Khan cannot change that posture without changing Pakistan’s policies on Afghanistan and terrorism. The course of Pakistan-Iran relations of course depends on the two states themselves.
Q. How do you see Pakistan’s relations with China shaping up under the new government?
A. China is the biggest power player in Pakistan today. China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) has ensured that. For the near future I see a further deepening of Pakistan-China ties.
Q. PML-N has lost the ground across the country, even in Punjab. PPP has been relegated to sidelines. Do you think it will be difficult for these two parties to comeback from here?
A. Politics and political parties rarely die out. I do see a continued role for both parties in Pakistan’s future.
Farahnaz Ispahani is Global Fellow at Washington’s Wilson Centre, former member of Pakistani parliament (from Pakistan People’s Party) and former media adviser to the Pakistani president. She spoke to Rohit E David on Imran Khan being set to become the new prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s decision to come back to the country, and the role the military will continue to have in Pakistani politics:
How will Imran Khan becoming PM change the scenario in Pakistan?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Imran Khan has won the election amidst the most serious and blatant charges of election rigging in Pakistan’s political history. Khan’s arrogant personality and inability to forgive will make it difficult for him to take the opposition parties along – and with his slim lead this will create an extremely divided parliament. And, potentially weaken the ability of the government to make decisions and then implement them. The scenario in Pakistan is already fraught with tension. Frequent terror attacks by extremist groups, increasing sectarianism, an economy on the brink of collapse and Khan’s openly espoused contempt for India and the United States will lead to an even weaker nation.
Do you feel that Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan was a blunder?
Farahnaz Ispahani: In retrospect it was ill advised. He was basing his return on assumptions that failed to occur. I believe Nawaz Sharif was removed from his post as prime minister unconstitutionally as his disqualification preceded his trial. At the time of his disqualification, no court of law had carried out a trial and the Supreme Court acted at the military’s behest. As for his return, like any other citizen of Pakistan he had the right to come home and participate in the democratic process. Sharif also has millions of supporters who he thought needed his presence to lead the election.
How will Pakistan’s relation with India change with Khan as PM?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Imran Khan was brought to power by the establishment. Military, intelligence agencies, judiciary and the election commission of Pakistan. I believe, the military, his biggest benefactor, will make him toe the line with India. And, if Khan tries to act in a more open manner with India he will feel the power of the boot very quickly. In any case statements made by him and his party members in the past and present indicate there is contempt among PTI leaders regarding Pakistan’s largest neighbour.
Will Pakistani army have a larger say in the daily working of parliament?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Pakistan army worked very hard to get Khan elected. And, did so in a very obvious manner. Therefore, they will expect him to be grateful and continue to follow their lead vis-a-vis India and the United States – and leave all the foreign, defence and economic policy decisions in their hands.
Has Pakistan rejected hardline Islamist parties?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Pakistan’s hardline Islamist parties do not usually do very well at the ballot box. Khan’s nickname of ‘Taliban Khan’ and his support of the blasphemy law indicates that he will, if not outrightly, support the Islamist parties. Because he shares some of their beliefs he may want to work with them as prime minister. In his first address to the nation Imran Khan sounded positive and statesmanlike regarding better ties with India and the United States but he has often gone back on previous statements. In any case, even if we grant him the best will in the world, most of his speech will not be acted upon. The military establishment will ensure that.
Is it the end of the road for Bilawal Bhutto?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Bilawal Bhutto ran the PPP election campaign this cycle and he retained the home base of Sindh province. He has also contested and won his first seat in the National Assembly of Pakistan. Most analysts have said Mr Bhutto-Zardari conducted himself with maturity at the young age of 29. The real question is whether the PPP will remain the regional party his father Asif Zardari has made it – or could it become a federal/national party again? Too soon to say.
Election authorities had granted military officers broad powers inside polling centres. Do you feel the elections were rigged?
Farahnaz Ispahani: Yes. I do believe the elections were rigged. Openly and blatantly. Every major opposition party has commented on it including former Punjab chief minister (and Nawaz Sharif’s brother) Shehbaz Sharif. The election was marred by allegations of military meddling and pre-poll rigging. Pakistan’s military, intelligence services, judiciary, and the election commission have interfered directly in the past as well. The ‘establishment’ as Pakistanis refer to it has created political alliances and propped up politicians throughout Pakistan’s political history. But this time, all pretence was abandoned.
Pre-poll rigging was carried out through media censorship, the targeted disqualifications of leading politicians, and the mainstreaming of terrorists. Election day continued with even more flagrant manipulation.
In no surprise to any serious observer of Pakistani politics, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has garnered the lead in Pakistan’s elections. The election was marred by allegations of military meddling and pre-poll rigging. Those allegations and the likelihood of falling short of an absolute majority will taint Khan’s victory for years to come.
In an indictment of the Election Commission’s incompetence, the results were still trickling in almost a day later. There were complaints of military officers directing polling staff and polling staff refusing to share requisite forms for election results with polling agents of parties other than PTI.
The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) called the preliminary results an assault on democracy. Party leader Shehbaz Sharif claimed the results showed “a sheer rigging”. “The way the people’s mandate has blatantly been insulted, it is intolerable,” Shehbaz said. “We totally reject this result. It is a big shock to Pakistan’s democratic process.”
Imran Khan mobilised many young voters with his mantra of ‘Naya Pakistan” or a New Pakistan.
But that may be harder to achieve with a weak Parliamentary majority and a unified opposition that feels cheated. The country’s second democratic transfer of power will, thus, start off on the wrong footing.
Unlike the first democratic handover between the PPP and the PML-N in 2013, this election ended up becoming a contest between pro-establishment and anti-establishment forces, the term ‘establishment’ being used in Pakistan as a synonym for the all-powerful military.
It was fiercely contested by all the country’s leading parties, including the conservative Islamist MMA coalition, and an assortment of minor parties, some of them propped up by the establishment.
The establishment’s goal seemed to be to weaken and decimate the traditional parties.
Pakistan’s military, spy services, judiciary and the Election Commission have faced questions about the fairness of elections before. They have created political alliances and propped up politicians throughout Pakistan’s chequered history – but this time, all inhibitions about appearances of propriety were abandoned.
Even Nawaz Sharif’s rise to the office of prime minister in 1990, as head of the ISI-created Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), did not have such an odour of deceit, open partisanship of state institutions, or of the people’s mandate being robbed so blatantly.
This time round, pre-poll rigging was carried out through media censorship, arbitrary disqualifications of leading candidates, manipulation of political parties by intelligence services, and the mainstreaming of terrorists. Election day continued with more flagrant manipulation.
Why did the military feel the need to intervene so directly and openly to favour one political party over others?
In 1990, the army was motivated by fears of Benazir Bhutto being close to the West at a time when sanctions seemed inevitable over Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
This time, it seems insecure about the burgeoning India-US partnership and the prospect of losing its grip on some of the terror groups it created. In the Generals’ opinion, the PPP and PML-N cannot be trusted in view of their alleged corruption and unwillingness to embrace the Jihadi narrative.
The establishment would rather trust a populist leader using hate to generate support, the Pakistani equivalent of Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Oban. Imran Khan has earned the military’s trust by appeasing terrorist actions, saluting the Pakistani establishment and holding his opponents and their supporters in total scorn.
Imran Khan’s victory is likely to lead to a very divided Pakistan.
A country that is barely holding on economically – and where terrorists have been mainstreamed – is unlikely to break out of international isolation.
His arrogance and lack of introspection – and the use of hate speech against other groups including religious minorities – has led to comparisons between him and other celebrity leaders, including one in the US, who rose to power without experience in government.
Among the fears of Pakistan’s centrist citizens is the likelihood of Prime Minister Imran Khan adopting extreme positions on ties with India and the United States, and stepping up support for terrorist organisations, especially the Taliban.
Khan is also known for intolerance towards those who disagree with him within Pakistan.
Pakistani religious minorities are afraid of further marginalisation and violence, given Khan’s anti-Ahmadi rhetoric in the final days of his campaign. Khan’s supporters tend to be verbally violent on social media and his own verbal excesses are also well-known. He described Pakistani liberals as ‘bloodthirsty’ and has often been willing to describe his opponents as ‘traitors’ and thieves.
With no prior experience in government, Imran Khan will have to deal with the many challenges facing Pakistan, including a looming financial crisis. Managing the economy of a country that exports almost half the value of what it imports will prove harder than peddling the over-simplification that ending political corruption alone would make Pakistan prosperous.
Uneasy days lie ahead for Pakistan. After the euphoria of Imran Khan’s supporters subsides, Pakistan needs to deal with its substantive problems. Corruption is one of them – but a greater problem is the establishment’s refusal to recognise that its inflexible worldview about the US, India, Afghanistan, Jihadi terrorism, and Pakistani patriotism are all sources of difficulty for the country’s hapless 200 million.
Farahnaz Ispahaniis a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of Purifying the Land of the the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.