What happened this week? Seriously, we’re not sure. Trump wobbled (predictably) in his trade war with Europe, blithely reversing his positions as only a truly vacant sociopath could. (Check out this utterly hilarious story.) Facebook took a hit on the stock market, at least in part because of the EU’s new regulations on privacy. (TPM’s Josh Marshall thinks this is the beginning of the end, or at least the end of the beginning, for the social media colossus.) The deadline to reunite kidnapped immigrant children with their families came and went, and the Trump administration just gave the world a big shrug emoji.
Perhaps the biggest global story of the week is the historic victory of cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, who looks set to be Pakistan’s next Prime Minister. It is noteworthy for a variety of reasons. First, this represents the third straight (sort of) democratic election since the end of General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship, and the second peaceful transfer of power* between democratically elected ruling parties in the country’s history (no small feat in a nation that has faced perpetual military coups). Second, the success of Khan’s PTI party at the polls represents a break from the noxious, decades-long tug-of-war between Pakistan’s dominant parties, the PPP and the PML-N, which was most recently in power. Control of government has shifted back and forth between the two parties — or, rather, the Bhutto and Sharif families — throughout much of the country’s democratic history, with one party looting the public coffers before its leaders are overthrown, arrested, executed, or some combination of the three. (Pakistani politics are notoriously difficult for Americans to map on to our own domestic conception of a left-to-right spectrum, but the PPP has historically been viewed as the party of the left.) Third, Imran Khan is a singular figure in Pakistani culture and politics: a beloved athlete, expertly coiffed and jet-setting celebrity, patron of causes, and political outsider who finally fought his way into power.
However, all is not rosy. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, of the then-ruling party, were arrested earlier this month; the country’s powerful military establishment reportedly bullied newspapers and TV stations to tone down their political coverage, and the popular GEO TV was even forced off the air; and opposition parties are calling the vote illegitimate due to irregularities. Most importantly, Khan is viewed by most observers as the military’s preferred candidate; even when democratically-elected leaders are in office, the vast phalanx of the Army and the ISI (the nation’s intelligence agency) wields power and influence behind the scenes.
My wife and I happened to see Imran Khan speak back in 2006 or 2007 at Columbia University. I was very open to the idea of his quest for reform; knowing a little bit about how venal Pakistani politics were, I figured any newcomer pledging to fight corruption and shake things up was a welcome prospect. Alas, he came across like a vacuous poodle to me, mouthing airy platitudes and unable to answer basic questions about policy. He has subsequently cozied up to Islamists and Taliban-adjacent figures. It remains to be seen what this sea change will mean for the people of Pakistan, the country’s relationship with the US and India, or any number of other issues. But for a nation whose leaders have routinely failed to keep their hands out of the public kitty or even keep the lights on (literally), change is a promising thing.
* It could be argued that PMLQ handed power over to PPP in 2008, but it was the party of the self-installed dictator and it is debatable whether one can say its government was truly democratically elected.
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