Lahore: All eyes are on Imran Khan, the poster boy of cricket, in the second civilian transfer of power in Pakistan’s history. Flamboyant Khan, in his new avatar, is expected to oust the dynasts that are deeply entrenched in Pakistan for the last few decades. Counting is on and initial trends show Khan’s PTI ahead, but he may need a partner in a hung house. It could be 24 hours before the final results are declared.
The person who could play the kingmaker is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Khan has a lot going for him: he is seen to be less corrupt, is expected to bring Pakistan under global arc lights once again – not as a rogue nation – but as a modern Islamic welfare state. But all observers do not take Khan’s popularity at face value. They see embedded in it a tacit understanding with the military, which they claim has worked to undermine the election by getting Nawaz Sharif and his daughter out of the way.
Detractors say that the Army has played the political nanny to Imran by targeting his opponents, gagging the media and ensuring that the only face plastered on walls is that of the former cricketer. By an uncanny coincidence, the leader of the dominant party, the three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was thrown in the prison a few days before the election, with his daughter Maryam, who is also his political heir.
But Sharifs still matter – They are the most potent family in Pakistan; Nawaz’s younger brother, Shehbaz, 66, is the current president of the PML (N) and hopes to lead the country. Until recently, he was the chief minister of Punjab. The dark horse is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 29, the son and grandson of two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed. His father, former President Asif Ali Zardari, exerts the real power in the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party. The younger Zardari is not expected to win, but he could potentially play kingmaker if there is a hung parliament.
Even Islamic hardliners are contesting this general election. In fact, the Army has allowed the mainstreaming of several sponsors of terrorism like Hafiz Sayeed by allowing them to contest. Among these parties are Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, the reconstituted version of a party that officials had previously banned, and Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, which backs the country’s contentious blasphemy laws. Whichever party wins will have its job cut out. Pakistan’s economy facing a looming currency crisis and the new government may have to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a second bailout since 2013.Khan’s PTI has not ruled out seeking relief from China, Islamabad’s closest ally.