It is commonplace to see media reports calling elections—wherever they happen—historic and uniquely important. The Wednesday election in Pakistan was no different. Indeed, Pakistan is standing at a crossroads and this election could indeed have been a game changer. However, it was not to be. Going by the numbers at the time this editorial was written, it looks like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) will come to power. However, the strings will continue to be pulled by the Pakistan army.

Khan, a star cricketer-turned-politician, owes his rise to the army—the most powerful actor in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. From underperforming in the last election in 2013 and complaining of rigging, Khan and Pakistan have come a long way. Most other non-PTI parties are today complaining of rigging and Khan is sitting pretty at the top.

It is important to understand why Khan’s ascent seems to be a missed opportunity for Pakistan and the region. One, this would be only the second time in Pakistan’s history when a peaceful transition of power is happening from one civilian government to another. The first instance, in 2013, was clearly the more significant one. The mandate that Sharif won five years ago was largely on his own. Sharif had himself started his political career as a protege of the Pakistan army in the 1980s. Over time, though, he realized the pitfalls of befriending the army. In 2006, Sharif and his political rival, the late Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP), signed a “Charter of Democracy" where the two pledged “not to solicit the support of military to come into power or to dislodge a democratic government".

After coming to power in 2013 with a handsome mandate, Sharif started to assert himself. He attended the swearing-in-ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He put the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf on trial. He carved out an approach, divergent to the army’s, in securing domestic peace with terrorist groups. But the army wasn’t going to be a mute spectator and today, Sharif and his daughter—his political heir—are behind bars. The army has taken full control of internal security and external policy. Musharraf is spending time in London, far away from institutions of accountability in Pakistan.

In order to cut Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N, to size, the Pakistan army has supported multiple protest movements against the civilian government in the last five years. One such protest was led by Khan and a religious preacher named Tahirul Qadri in 2014. The army’s tacit support to the protesters was widely seen as a “soft coup" in operation, and marked the beginning of Khan’s ascent in national politics.

Two, this election has seen what has been widely called the “mainstreaming" of terrorist groups in Pakistan. A number of political parties founded by terrorists, including one by 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, have found space on the ballot papers. This could not have been possible without the approval of the army. The results so far indicate that these parties haven’t performed well but it will be important to check the final vote share figures. Irrespective of how well these parties perform, Khan himself is seen as soft on extremist groups. He has defended the controversial blasphemy laws that are used to target minorities in the country and has also attacked the vulnerable Ahmadiyyas in his speeches. So, with Khan’s ascent, Pakistan is likely to offer an even weaker resistance than before to Islamic extremism.

Three, Pakistan’s economy is in poor shape. The debt levels are too high and its foreign reserves can barely cover two months of imports. It is also a time when Pakistan is making a transition from the US to China as its primary economic benefactor. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has worsened the current account deficit and led to a series of commercially unviable projects. The new government will have to urgently seek a bailout either from China or the International Monetary Fund. The former will seek strategic control over critical Pakistani assets and the latter will demand painful fiscal reforms. Having argued for the creation of a welfare state, Khan does not seem to be the best person to undertake this job.

Four, the weak Pakistani institutions have been further decimated in the run up to the election. The judiciary and the anti-corruption watchdog are playing to the tune of Rawalpindi. The media has been put under immense levels of strain and censorship. The army has openly played favourites in the election even as the election commission of Pakistan looked on: defections were engineered within the PML-N, terrorists were allowed to field candidates, political parties were broken up by the “deep state", and no less than the army chief indicated his support for select political parties like the Balochistan Awami Party. Khan, a beneficiary of such degradation, does not offer any hope for institutional repair in Pakistan.

Five, Khan has repeatedly accused Sharif of selling Pakistani interests to his “friend" Modi. Khan has also been a trenchant critic of US presence in Afghanistan. Will Khan be interested in improving his country’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the US? For that, he will need to push back against the army’s control over foreign policy. Will he?

What will Imran Khan as Pakistani prime minister mean for India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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