South Asia

Election Victory in Hand, Imran Khan Offers to Hold Talks With India

While official results have not been declared yet, the PTI chief claimed victory and spoke about improving trade ties with India and also "human rights violations" in Kashmir.

New Delhi: Claiming victory in Pakistan’s general elections on Thursday, former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan offered to hold talks with India to improve relations and highlighted the importance of close trade ties, but at the same time reiterated that Kashmir was a core issue and referred to human rights violation by Indian security agencies in the volatile state.

While India views Khan’s remarks as a “mixed bag”, the prevailing view here is that the former cricketer echoes the Pakistani establishment’s view on Kashmir, even as there is scepticism on whether the army would even allow the new government to take an independent position on rebuilding ties.

Pakistan went to polls on Wednesday, which would eventually lead to its second civilian transfer of power since independence and partition in 1947.

Less than 24 hours after the voting ended, Imran Khan delivered a victory speech that was broadcast on state television. While official final results are still to be announced, leads show that his Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) was on target to get a simple majority in the national assembly. Imran Khan was going to be Pakistan’s next prime minister 22 years after he formed PTI in 1996.

As per the latest figures on Geo television, PTI was leading 117 seats, followed by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) in 60 seats and Pakistan People’s Party at 40. Around 20 independent candidates are also leading in various constituencies.

Pakistan’s national assembly has reserved 272 seats for direct election, which means that a single party has to win 137 seats in order to form the government on its own. After the final results are known, the candidates for the 60 seats for women and 10 for minorities will be selected through proportional representation among the parties.

Imran Khan speaks after casting his vote. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha.

In his victory speech, Khan spoke about adopting policies to benefit the poor and downtrodden rather than the elite, including an overhaul of the taxation policy.

Asserting that his government will be austere in its spending, Khan indicated that the palatial Pakistan prime minister’s house may be turned into an educational institute. “I will be embarrassed going and living there. Our government will decide what we will do with the PM house. We want to turn it into an educational or public institution,” he said speaking without any notes.

Turning to foreign policy, he said, “I want good relations with all neighbours so that we can concentrate on nation-building”.

After a couple of sentences on relations with China, Afghanistan, Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia, he turned his attention towards India.

“I was a little disappointed that in the last few days, the Indian media has portrayed me like a villain in a Bollywood film … Like everything that will be disadvantageous to India would occur due to me,” said Khan.

Incidentally, earlier in the day, Pakistan foreign office spokesperson had also criticised Indian media for spreading “venomous propaganda” by insinuating that the elections had been “managed”.

Expounding further on India, Khan said that he was perhaps one of those in Pakistan who understood the country well. “I have travelled throughout India playing cricket,” he said.

The Pakistani premier-elect said he believed that improving trade between India and Pakistan would be important, but added that Kashmir remains the “core issue”.

“Kashmir remains our biggest contention … whenever you have troops in urban areas, there will be human rights violations … and the people of Kashmir have suffered massively,” he asserted.

Talking about ending “blame games”, Khan said if India had a beef with Pakistan’s role in Kashmir, there were also suspicions about India’s role in Balochistan. “The leadership of Pakistan and India now need to come to the table to resolve this and end the blame games,” he said, adding “we are stuck now in square one”.

“Ready to improve relations”

Khan asserted that if the Indian leadership was “ready”, he was also “ready to improve relations”. “If you move one step towards us, we will take two steps towards you. Till now, it has been one-sided.”

“I say this with conviction. It is important for the subcontinent that there is friendship between India and Pakistan and resolve issues through dialogue,” concluded Khan.

Imran Khan’s party manifesto had also mentioned that “resolution of the Kashmir dispute” was one of the four “core national interests” to be enshrined in Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Unlike Khan, the manifesto had not referred to improving trade ties, but viewed India only through the security lens. “For lasting peace within our own region, especially with our neighbour India, conflict resolution and the security route to cooperation is the most viable,” it said.

Improving trade ties with India had been a cornerstone of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s policy, but it was stymied by the military establishment, which wanted to have the last word on this subject.

There has been no public response from India on the general elections, with New Delhi awaiting release of official results by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Indian minister’s comments

However, minister of state for power R.K. Singh commented to news agency ANI that Khan had got the backing of Pakistan military. “Military is supporting him from the start, it’s not new. Imran Khan has always been a military candidate. It’s not us, but people of Pakistan who are saying so,” he said on Thursday morning. There has been official silence from the Indian side on Singh’s remarks.

Sources said that Khan’s statement on improving relations with India was “largely positive”, especially with relation to bringing up trade ties. But, bringing up Kashmir and human rights violations in the same breath, while expected, was not helpful, they added.

Earlier speaking to The Wire before Khan’s speech, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan Sharat Sabarwal said that the PTI chief would not have a decisive role in shaping Pakistan’s India policy.

“I would not spend too much time analysing what he thinks, as it will be the army which will call the shots,” he said.

Sabharwal stated that he was not going by “election rhetoric”, where PTI and Imran Khan often ran down Nawaz Sharif by bringing up his so-called “affection” for India.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

“His electoral manifesto talks of resolution in Kashmir as one of the national priorities. It talks of conflict resolution. That is clearly army’s agenda. There is no mention of people-to-people contacts or trade in relation with India,” Sabharwal noted.

Khan’s relationship with the military

Imran Khan’s most crucial relationship over his tenure would be with the military establishment. His predecessor had strained ties with Rawalpindi, which many observers believe is the reason for his current status as a resident of Adiala jail.

While Khan’s closeness to the army establishment has been commented publicly, there is also concern that his temperament may not be entirely suitable in toeing the military’s position.

“All of us know, he is army’s protege. He will try to be on their right side. But he is more ambitious and more mercurial than Nawaz Sharif. So the possibility of him falling out with the army is there. This is likely to be a very interesting time for Imran and Pakistan,” said IDSA’s South Asia centre coordinator Ashok K. Behuria.

Similarly, Sabharwal said that the ability of Khan to stay in power depended on the army. “If he has a wafer thin majority of 10-20 seats, army can pull the plug anytime,” he noted.

He said Khan was not always in line with the military’s position, for example, on fighting terror groups. Imran Khan had publicly objected to military action in FATA, claiming that “in the Pashtun belt if you create enemies like this, you can create enmity for generations,” Sabharwal reminded.

“Nawaz was also a creation of the army, but at some stage, he realised that he had to chart out his own course, because he found it stifling. So who knows (about Imran Khan)? Perhaps, having a wafer thin majority will come into play in his dynamic with the army,” he said.

Other parties claimed election was rigged

As the results trickled in, PML-N, PPP, MQM-P, MMA and other parties claimed that the electoral process had been rigged. There were claims of slow polling, polling agents not being allowed to observe final count, final certified copies of the results not being released, coupled with the election commission delaying the results due to “technical glitches”.

Twenty-four hours after the polling had ended, the election commission had disseminated results of less than half of the votes for national assembly seats.

In his victory speech, Imran Khan did address the issue by pledging to probe any claims of rigging.

Five years ago, it had been Imran Khan who claimed that the 2013 election results had been rigged. By August 2014, he began a four-month dharna in Islamabad, supported by Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). Pakistan military finally brokered an agreement which led to a judicial commission being established to investigate the allegations of electoral fraud.

“What happens now depends on what position the PMLN and PPP take. Are they going to contest the results or are they going to cooperate? Will they first try grab the provincial assemblies?” said former Indian envoy to Pakistan, T.C.A. Raghavan said.

Behuria said that the opposition parties may try to stage dharnas, but with the establishment supporting Imran Khan, it may not be easy. “In this case, judiciary, army and the bureaucracy are strongly backing Khan. They will find it easier to stop the dharna than during Sharif’s term,” he said.

The role of judiciary

G. Parthasarathy, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan and chancellor of Central University Jammu, noted that a key point of the current electoral process was the role of the judiciary. “The judiciary has always played second fiddle to the army. While no army official was called for any court case, the defence secretary was summoned. But this time, the hounding of Sharif showed an unprecedented level of collaboration,” he asserted.

Raghavan, however, cautioned that Khan may not find it as easy to get along with chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who has shown strong populist tendencies with his suo-motu cases and ‘surprise visits’ to hospitals. “Judiciary was against Nawaz Sharif and in the process, chief justice has empowered himself. He could become a nuisance for Khan.”

All Indian analysts asserted that PMLN did not get a “level playing field” due to pre-polling “engineering” of large-scale defections from the previous ruling party in Punjab and the propping up of extremist Islamist groups.

These are reflected in one of the three big trends in this Pakistan elections, according to observers.

The first, is of course, the spread of PTI from Khyber Pakthunkhwa to Sindh and Punjab.

In Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi, PTI is on its way to win the largest number of national assembly seats. This was largely at the expense of Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which has splintered into several factions over the last few years.

Despite pre-poll indications of a weak performances, Pakistan’s People Party is likely to form the next provincial government in Sindh. “The majority of seats in Sindh are in the rural belt, where PPP have held onto their base,” said Parthasarathy.

The party has also benefited from large number of defections of “electables” from PMLN’s stable, especially in southern Punjab, which had been the Sharif family’s stronghold.

According to observers, PMLN’s vote bank in the elections was also eroded by an unprecedented number of candidates from Islamist parties.

The Hafiz Saeed-backed Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek had more than 260 candidates in the fray, including his son and son-in-law. None of them are leading in any constituency. “They was never any expectation that they would win anyway this time. The reason that candidates from extremist groups were contesting in such large numbers was to eat into the PMLN backyard,” said a senior Indian government official.

In Punjab, the far-right Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) may not have won any seats but they came third in several constituencies. In Sindh, TLP won two provincial assembly seats as per unofficial results. In a surprise performance, the TLP candidate has even pushed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to third position in PPP’s Lyari stronghold of NA-246.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) speaks during a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan August 11, 2017. Credits: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

TLP is the political face of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasoon Allah (TLYRA), which was formed last year on the platform of retaining anti-blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws.

Unofficial results in Punjab province

As per DAWN’s unofficial results in the Punjab provincial assembly, PMLN has sealed 114 seats, with PTI extremely close with 113 seats. In 2013, PMLN had won 248 general seats. Shahrat Sabharwal said that PTI will certainly break the stranglehold of PMLN in Punjab and form the next provincial government. “Punjab is too big a prize for the army to hand over to PMLN. Although if they were wiser, they would do it, as it would forestall agitation. If they deny them that also, you can be sure that there will be agitation and instability,” he said.

Agreeing that PTI will certainly form the next government in Punjab, Behuria asserted, “In my view, PTI will do everything possible to form the government in Punjab. It doesn’t make sense that they will be in power at the Centre, but not in Punjab, which is the powerhouse in Pakistan.”